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She voted, and then 2020 struck again

Early Sunday morning, someone started a fire in the ballot drop box in front of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
Early Sunday morning, someone started a fire in the ballot drop box in front of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Sarah Carlson had happily documented her 2020 vote on Saturday, posting to Facebook a photo of her holding her ballot next to the drop box outside of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square just before she deposited it. The time was 2:42 p.m.

Sarah J. Carlson took a photo when she placed her ballot in the ballot box at Boston Public Library, which was later set on fire.
Sarah J. Carlson took a photo when she placed her ballot in the ballot box at Boston Public Library, which was later set on fire.Sarah J. Carlson

“Civic duty done (for today),” Carlson, 39, wrote.

It almost wasn’t. About 13 hours later, authorities say a 39-year-old Boston man set the ballot box on fire in what officials believe was a deliberate and criminal act, leaving dozens of ballots damaged and potentially unreadable.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins later said Worldy Armand, who was charged with willful and malicious burning, appears to be “emotionally disturbed” but there was no indication he was “plotting against our democracy.”

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Of the 122 ballots inside the box at the time, officials said 87 were still legible and able to be processed. But it’s unclear if the remaining 35 could be, including as many as 10 that Secretary of State William F. Galvin said were “badly damaged."

By Monday morning, Carlson said her ballot was listed as not found on the state’s online ballot tracker. After this story posted online, Carlson said she was contacted by the Boston Elections Department, and told that her ballot was “salvaged and able to be processed.” A member of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s press office also e-mailed the Globe to say the ballot had been accepted.

Carlson, a surgeon at the Boston VA Medical Center and a South End resident, said she had made a point to vote early because she is on call on Election Day. When she read news coverage of the fire Sunday night, she was “shocked,” and frustrated. State officials said the ballot box had last been emptied at 2:29 p.m. on Saturday — just 12 minutes before she had submitted her ballot and 13 minutes before her social media post.

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Which, besides the obvious one — did her ballot survive? — prompted another question in her mind: What’s next?

“Given the way that 2020 has gone, especially for someone like me — I work in health care — this year has absolutely been turned upside down on its head. Every unexpected turn that I couldn’t have ever imagined has been thrown at us. So of course my ballot has been set on fire,” Carlson said by phone Monday.

“I wouldn’t have been more surprised if a zombie came in, stole my ballot, and ran away with it," she said. "Everything has happened in 2020.”

Carlson is likely not alone in that feeling. She said a young woman had dropped her ballot into the box just seconds before she did, memorializing the vote with her own photo of her ballot with the library in the background.

It’s what inspired Carlson to do the same thing, she said, with the hope her post could “get some more people I know inspired to do early voting," too.

That the ballot box was burned on Boylston Street, just yards from the site of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, also struck her. If Bostonians could respond to that unspeakable tragedy with bravery and unity, they wouldn’t be deterred by this, she said.

“It’s almost apropos, that the attack on our democracy happened in the heart of our city. Bostonians can’t be shaken down that easily,” she said.

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With eight days until Election Day, Carlson said she would have tried to secure another ballot if hers was destroyed. (Voting in person was her original Plan B, she said.)

State officials have said that any affected voters would have a replacement ballot mailed to them by the city, with the option of casting that replacement ballot or voting in person. And if any affected voter does not submit a new ballot, their original ballot will be hand-counted to the extent possible, according to Galvin’s office.

Carlson said she was determined to make sure hers counts. Speaking as a citizen and not in her official capacity as a federal employee, she said her motivation is driven by health care — her top priority — and ensuring there’s change given the way the coronavirus pandemic has been handled.

“Voting Donald Trump out of office," she said, “is the most important thing to me.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.