More than 1.5 million ballots were cast Tuesday, breaking records for voter turnout in a state primary election.

A majority of those who voted — nearly 1 million — cast ballots by mail or dropped them off at city and town halls, according to state election officials.

Voting rights groups attributed the record turnout to expanded vote-by-mail and early voting options. They also lauded the outcome as proof that changes to the state's election laws prompted by the pandemic are working.

"Expanded mail voting helped over a million Bay Staters have their voices heard ... from the safety of their own homes," said Kristina Mensik, assistant director of Common Cause Massachusetts. "It’s clear to us that vote-by-mail and early voting for primaries must be here to stay."

The state's 4.5 million voters were sent applications that could be used to request ballots for the Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 general elections. The mass mailing of applications was required under a new state law that expanded voting options in light of concerns about the coronavirus.

The law expires Dec. 31. Voting rights advocates say the turnout should convince policymakers to make the changes permanent.

"The record-breaking numbers speak for themselves," said Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, a member of the Voting Modernization Coalition. "These temporary voting changes have been a huge success, and should be made permanent."

Much of the interest in the election Tuesday was fueled by a contentious Democratic primary between incumbent Sen. Ed Markey and challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy III, and a GOP primary for the Senate seat between Kevin O’Connor and Shiva Ayyadurai. Markey and O'Connor will face each other in the Nov. 3 election.

Voters also weighed in on a crowded Democratic race to replace Kennedy in the 4th Congressional District, the outcome of which wasn't known until Friday morning, in part, because of a deluge of mail-in ballots. The state had to get a court order to continue counting ballots after Election Day.

Massachusetts is among dozens of states that expanded mail-in voting to prevent crowding at the polls. The decision has been clouded by uncertainty over the Postal Service's ability to process millions of ballots, however, as well as President Donald Trump's vocal criticism of voting by mail.

The Postal Service has warned Massachusetts and 46 other states that it cannot ensure all ballots cast by mail in the November elections will arrive in time to be counted.

State election officials haven't released data on how many mailed ballots were rejected this week due to mistakes or because they were received after Tuesday's 8 p.m. deadline to submit them to local election clerks.

Ahead of the primary, Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees the elections, urged voters to return mail-in ballots by dropping them off at city and town halls in person.

Hundreds of thousands of ballot applications were returned to elections offices because they were sent to the wrong addresses or the voters had died or moved away.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Galvin said the primary — and the state's first test run of expanded voting by mail — were largely successful.

But he cautioned that the general election could be more challenging. He expects turnout to top 3 million.

"I am very concerned about November. It’s going to be a much larger turnout," he said. "We have a lot of work ahead of us."

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

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