BOSTON -- Thousands of applications for vote-by-mail ballots have been returned to Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office because they were sent to voters who no longer live at those addresses.

The state's 4.5 million voters are getting applications they may use to request ballots for the Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 general elections. The mass mailing of applications is required under a new state law that expanded vote-by-mail options amid lingering concerns about the coronavirus.

Galvin's spokeswoman, Deb O'Malley, couldn't say exactly how many ballot applications have been returned, but she said "thousands" have come back in the past week.

"We're in the process of sorting them and notifying local election clerks," O'Malley said. "We are bringing in additional staff to handle the volume."

For critics of expanded voting by mail, the returned applications are an example of how the mass-mailing process could lead to abuse.

"For anybody who questioned why we thought this would be ripe for fraud, we're starting to see it firsthand," said Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, who said his office has been barraged with calls from constituents about the mailings. "We're hearing about two, three and even four applications going to houses where those people don't live anymore. That's a huge concern."

Debra Mahoney said she received an application for another woman at her Salisbury home, where she has lived for more than 12 years.

"For me, it raises questions about the validity of the process," she said. "I'm an honest person, so I'm not to take this ballot application and do anything illegal with it. But how do we know other people out there wouldn't fill it out and try to cast an extra vote? It's concerning."

Voting advocacy groups say those fears are unfounded and there is little evidence of widespread fraud from expanded voting by mail.

Galvin's office has pointed out that the new law requires ballot applications to be mailed to every registered voter, not necessarily active voters.

The state's database is based on lists maintained by local election clerks, and the state is required to update the list to ensure accuracy. But it must wait two election cycles to remove "inactive" voters, meaning the names of those who have died or moved away can still appear.

To be sure, the applications must be signed under the threat of perjury and returned to local election officials to get an actual ballot. Local clerks receiving the applications are required to then confirm their validity using the most current information on file in city and town halls before they send an actual ballot.

Nancy Talbot, Ware’s town clerk and the president of the Massachusetts Town Clerk Association, said there are numerous checks and balances built into the system.

"The last thing Massachusetts needs to worry about is voter fraud," she said. "We have some of the strongest voter protection laws in the country."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. 

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