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ADRIAN WALKER

Pull lever for integrity

The biggest concern around Election Day tomorrow is whether the dismal voter turnout of six weeks ago will be duplicated. The second biggest is the mess that is the Boston Election Department.

What would possess an election commissioner to unseal a ballot box as Nancy Lo allegedly did in September? It's common knowledge that ballots are not to be tampered with -- yet elections workers have confirmed that boxes were opened, with some witnesses saying that as many as 100 of 254 may have had their seals removed and been improperly closed.

This may sound like a minor matter, but it isn't. As story after story has established, it was part of an election that was widely mismanaged by the city's top elections official. Secretary of State William Galvin, the state's chief elections supervisor, took six pages to detail some of the other mistakes his office found.

That's a lot of violations for one low-turnout election.

But people in Chinatown probably wouldn't be as surprised as I was. After all, that was the site of many of the violations Galvin detailed, with poll workers committing widespread questionable conduct.

People in Roxbury and Dorchester wouldn't be shocked, either. After the 2000 election, the Boston NAACP charged that voters had been kept from the polls and that other misconduct had taken place, which city officials eventually acknowledged months after the fact. City Hall replied with predictable bromides to the effect that Lo, who took office in 1999, was "cleaning up" the department. Supposedly, she's so tough she disciplined employees for taking too many water breaks. Everything was going to improve.

At some point in this cleanup, Lo apparently misplaced her broom.

She is being defended, of course. She has been part of the Menino administration since the beginning, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino seems to be suffering from a sudden attack of loyalty. In years past, people who served Menino far more effectively than Lo or Inspectional Services Commissioner Kevin Joyce were routinely dispatched with hatchets buried deep in their backs. Now, an elections commissioner can very possibly break the law, but where's the outrage?

Elections are one of those things that everyone takes for granted until things go wrong. Even after the Florida debacle in 2000, even people who care deeply about politics consider the minutiae of elections a snooze. Ballot boxes and optical scanners are too esoteric for all but an election-geek minority. So elections violations don't necessarily prompt fast action.

No one is claiming that anything Lo and her poll workers did materially affected the outcome of the preliminary. But even the possibility that it could have is completely unacceptable. Certainly, they will say that everything is all set for tomorrow, but are we sure we should believe them?

Despite having only a couple of competitive races, this has been the most interesting off-year City Council election in at least a decade. A strong race has galvanized Dorchester and Mattapan; the at-large race holds real suspense; the ascent of a new generation of politicians, underway for several years now, has continued to gain momentum.

But none of that means much if the people of Boston can't vote in confidence that their voices will be heard, in full accordance with the law. We know that didn't happen six weeks ago, or three years ago, and are left hoping for the best tomorrow.

There could be a new city councilor or two elected tomorrow, and a full slate of issues will await them and their colleagues. First on that list should be ensuring that when they next face the voters the focus will be on the candidates, not the integrity of the election itself.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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