The blaze erupted early on Sunday morning in a box outside the Boston Public Library, damaging 35 of the 122 ballots inside, according to the office of Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin.
Announcing their probe into the incident, the FBI said it was a “top priority” of the agency to “help maintain the integrity of the election process in Massachusetts by aggressively enforcing federal election laws.”
“Voters in Massachusetts can feel confident in the success of the information-sharing protocols that we have established with our local, state, and federal election security partners in advance of the 2020 election,” the FBI said in a statement.
Local police released images of a person near the ballot box around the time of the fire, urging members of the public to help identify the individual pictured.
In one of the images released by police, a man appears to be grasping something with a bright flame as he nears the ballot box, The Boston Globe reported.
Emergency responders put out the fire by filling the ballot box with water, the Boston Police Department said in a statement.
Galvin, who oversees the state’s elections, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh branded the incident “a disgrace to democracy.”
The pair said the setting of the fire was “a disrespect to the voters fulfilling their civic duty, and a crime” and said “any effort to undermine or tamper” with local elections will “be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Galvin also urged local election officials to strengthen security around drop boxes, suggesting police could be employed to monitor them and video surveillance used to deter any further possible vandalism.
In a bid to ensure the election process continues unhindered, local election officials meanwhile pledged replacement ballots will be mailed to voters whose slips were affected by the fire. Voters who dropped slips at the box can track their ballots at TrackMyBallotMA.com to check whether or not it was received.
If any voter whose ballot was affected does not provide a new one, the elections department will do their best to decipher the votes cast on the charred entries already submitted.
Worryingly for election officials, the fire in Boston was the second such incident within a week after a blaze broke out inside a ballot drop box in California on October 18.
Several completed ballots were reportedly destroyed in the fire, which erupted in front of Baldwin Park’s public library in Los Angeles County and came little more than a fortnight ahead of the November 3 presidential poll.
Arson investigators launched a probe into that incident, which firefighters suggested had been started by someone who appeared to have purposely tossed burning newspaper into the drop box, local media reported.
Drop boxes have become an increasingly common way to vote in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic for those who want to avoid crowds at polling stations.
Newsweek contacted the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for comment on how many ballot drop boxes have been affected by acts of vandalism in the run-up to this year’s poll.