Fully investigate the case of the materializing ballots

The Senate District 25 candidates: Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth (left), and Cathy Manchester, R-Gray. Contributed photos.

The Senate District 25 candidates: Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth (left), and Cathy Manchester, R-Gray. Contributed photos.

A mystery and a mess of an economy will greet the Maine Senate when it is sworn in on Wednesday. How one is handled will affect how well it can deal with the other.

The mystery might be called the case of the materializing ballots.

According to the sign-in sheets for the town of Long Island, 171 people voted this November. When the votes were first tallied, 171 votes were reported.

Because the margin for Senate District 25 was so close, a recount was held.

And here the mystery unfolded, with 21 additional Long Island ballots found, all cast for the Republican.

With 192 ballots, 21 more than the 171 names on the voter roster, the original outcome flipped. Before, Democrat Catherine Breen was ahead. Afterwards, Cathy Manchester led.

Close elections are exciting to those of us who preach that every vote matters. But the oddities here — more ballots than names on the roster, all for one candidate — raise questions.

Where did those extra ballots come from? Was there a mistake or malfeasance?

To ensure the integrity of the process, partisanship should be put aside as an investigation goes forward. Unfortunately, Republicans who benefited from the newly found ballots initially seemed rather uninterested in further review.

When the mystery was discovered, the lawyer representing Republicans argued against keeping the recount open. In contrast, “Kate Knox, an attorney representing the Democrats, refused to accept the new results on the night of the recount, citing concerns with Long Island’s ballots as well as nine disputed ballots and 10 missing ballots from Gray and Westbrook,” the BDN reported last week.

With the recount’s resolution under the purview of the Maine Senate, incoming Senate President Mike Thibodeau first called for a rapid resolution, stating that implications that there might have been fraud are “wild accusations.”

Pushing through a resolution would fly in the face of Republicans’ previously stated concerns about the integrity of the voting process. These came up in 2011 when Republicans tried to end Election Day voter registration but were held back by a people’s veto. Thibodeau himself voted for the end of Election Day registration.

Back then, Maine GOP Chair Charlie Webster raised the specter of voter fraud, specifically accusing Democrats of busing people to the polls to register and vote. In the ensuing months, then-Secretary of State Charlie Summers sent intimidating letters to college students who had every right to vote in Maine.

Summers and Webster said they wanted to protect the voting process and claimed that voter impersonation fraud, which virtually never occurs, necessitated doing away with Election Day registration.

If there was malfeasance in Long Island, it would be due to election fraud, a category that includes ballot stuffing and removing ballots. Several Democratic aides did the latter in 1992. Election fraud can’t be stopped by limiting when people could register to vote, nor by requiring voter identification.

On Monday, GOP Chairman Rick Bennett held that those saying that fraud was a possibility were “dishonestly attacking the election process.”

I have enormous respect for the role of political parties within democracies. Parties organize voters and work together in government.

But partisanship shouldn’t determine everything elected officials do. When it comes to reviewing contested elections, people in public office have responsibilities above serving their parties’ political interests. They should serve the democratic process itself.

Sen. Roger Katz, a moderate Republican, will lead the committee. The respected Katz has said all the right things about integrity and making “sure that the right person who was duly elected gets seated.”

Determining how 171 ballots and 171 signatures on the voter roster were transmuted into 192 ballots is the next step.

Committee members may need to ask the 238 Long Island registered voters (according to the most recent data from the Secretary of State), if they voted and check answers against the voter roster.

A careful investigation will better enable the Legislature to work together to take on Maine’s pressing issues.

Maine has recovered only 57 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, compared with 118 percent nationally and 122 percent in New England.

Our population is aging, particularly in rural areas. Lincoln’s hospital has even decided to stop delivering babies. The lack of Medicaid expansion has put all rural hospitals under significant strain.

Wherever the mystery of the materializing ballots leads, senators should take the time to follow the trail. They should endeavor to find out if there was a mistake or malfeasance and move on to address Maine’s problems.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.