An election fraud mystery has emerged in Maine's tiny Town of Long Island. The strange case has not only changed the previously announced "winner" of the election, but the contested results affect the entire state Senate and are now the subject of an investigation demanded by the Maine Democratic Party.
On Election Night this year, Democrat Catherine Breen reportedly won the race for state Senate by a very slim 32 votes in Maine's Senate District 25, according to the then-unofficial tally. However, during a hand recount of the votes last week, 21 previously unaccounted-for ballots were discovered to be in the locked Long Island ballot box. All of the "new" ballots included votes for Cathleen Manchester, the Republican candidate who had requested the recount.
Those 21 "new" ballots were above and beyond the 171 votes counted by hand on Election Night (which proved to be an otherwise perfect count) and the 171 voters listed as having voted on the "voter manifest" at Long Island's only precinct.
The "new" votes, combined with a few other adjustments to the tallies in the 25th District's six other towns, were enough to reverse the results, giving an 11-vote victory to the Republican candidate after the recount, even as neither party is able to explain the appearance of the "phantom ballots" in Long Island...
On Election Night, as Steve Mistler reports at the Portland Press Herald, the Democrat Breen barely outpaced the Republican Manchester by a total of 10,930 to 10,898.
After a recount on November 18th, and the surprise appearance of the 21 ballots for Manchester in Long Island, she was certified by the Secretary of State as having won the race by 10,927 to 10,916 --- an 11-vote spread.
In addition to the 21 mystery ballots for Manchester, the recount resulted in 9 disputed ballots and "10 missing ballots from Gray and Westbrook," according to Mario Moretto Bangor Daily News. (Recount tallies, adjustments to them, and challenged ballots are documented here [PDF].)
Without the unexplained 21 votes discovered for the Republican in Long Island, the Democrat would have won the race.
Maine's Democratic Party has refused to accept the new results and is now seeking a new recount and a subpoena for the Long Island's Town Clerk, Brenda Singo, "to explain why the official tally on a sealed box of ballots, as well as a voter manifest, differed from the number of ballots inside the box," according to Mistler at the Press Herald.
The official challenge throws the matter to the Maine Senate to determine who is to be properly seated or how the matter will be otherwise decided. The Republican-majority state Senate will convene a seven-seat panel after it is sworn in on December 3. The GOP will hold four of the seats on that committee which, Mistler reports, "has broad discretion to make a recommendation as it evaluates the results of the recount."
Moretto at Bangor Daily News reports that Long Island, "a town of about 230 residents, has only one polling place, and Singo was the only warden." She reported 171 voters on Election Day and has, so far, been unable to explain why 192 ballots were found when the ballot box was unlocked for the recount.
Singo has not immediately replied to a query by The BRAD BLOG.
"Marc Malon, Senate caucus director for the Maine Democratic Party, and Bill Logan, a lawyer representing the GOP, both reviewed the voter manifest on Monday and confirmed in separate interviews that the 21 additional ballots could not be accounted for," Moretto writes. "The recount on Nov. 18 and Monday's document review were both overseen by Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn," who works under Maine's Democratic Sec. of State Matt Dunlap.
"This type of discrepancy has not occurred in recent memory," Dunlap said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon. "It will be up to the Senate to try to discern what's happened here."
"The incoming voter list is consistent with the warden’s return of votes cast, showing that 171 Long Island voters submitted ballots in the November 4th, 2014, general election," said Dunlap, confirming that representatives from his office "opened the sealed voter list of the Town of Long Island to allow the parties to inspect it" on Monday. "The voter list and the 21 ballots for Manchester recorded in the recount but not tabulated on Election Night will be among the materials available for review by the Senate as it resolves the disputed election."
"Democrats feel burned by the fact that the GOP would not allow any additional investigation," writes Moretto, "and they are calling on the secretary of state and Senate committee to investigate where the 'phantom ballots' came from and whether they are valid. The party also is exploring what legal options are available to ensure there was no election fraud in Senate District 25."
The paper reports that the Republican attorney Logan downplayed the Democrats' concerns.
"One could always theorize that something nefarious was done, or that some mistake was made, but it's just a theory," he said. "We counted every ballot that we had, counted by a Republican and a Democrat, and the ballots were confirmed by the secretary of state. I can understand why they may be disappointed by the result, but that's part of a close election."
Logan went on to speculate that Singo might have failed to check off the names of some voters on Election Day or that there might have been human error during the hand count in Long Island, the only town in District 25 that tallies ballots by hand on Election Night. The Democratic attorney Knox rejected both theories, according to Moretto, who reported she describes the the speculation as "plausible explanations for a discrepancy of one or two ballots, but not 11 percent of all the votes cast in the town."
On Tuesday, the Daily News reports, Singo said she could not explain why there were more ballots than voters and had never seen a similar situation in the past. "When more questions were asked," the paper reports, "she said she was uncomfortable discussing the matter any further."
Among the questions we have sent to Singo ourselves and hope to see answered by the Town Clerk, are how, exactly, hand-counting is done on Election Night in the Town of Long Island; whether the process is fully public; whether or not there were witnesses of the counting that night, as expected; and what the chain of custody requirements are for ballots thereafter.
Human error is always a possibility when hand-counting paper ballots. However, when properly carried out in public, with witnesses checking either other's work, such errors are very rare. In this case, with the number of ballots counted on Election Night also matching precisely the number of reported voters, a 21 vote "miscount" of the number of ballots seems highly unlikely --- at least if appropriate public counting procedures were followed.
In fact, all the other towns in the same District rely on paper ballot optical-scan computer systems made by ES&S (the same ones that failed so spectacularly recently in Stoughton, Wisconsin's local ballot initiative and many other races over the years) to tabulate their ballots. According to the recount documentation [PDF], other than tiny Chebeague Island, only the Town of Long Island's Election Night count, by actual human beings, was found to have been perfect during the recount --- with the exception of the still-unexplained phantom ballots.
While the mystery remains, for now, and will ultimately be adjudicated by either the Maine State Senate or a court of law, it's important to note that this does not appear to be a problem that could have been deterred by the type of polling place Photo ID restrictions Republicans are attempting to institute around the nation. There is no evidence at this time that any voter did anything wrong, such as voting twice or in someone else's name, which is the only type of fraud that could be even possibly be deterred by Photo ID voting restrictions.
If anything nefarious took place in the Town of Long Island --- and, for now, that remains a big "if" --- it would seem to be an old-fashioned case of ballot box stuffing, a type of election fraud (like almost all types of election fraud) that is not deterred by draconian Photo ID requirements at the polling place.
UPDATE 12/10/2014: MYSTERY SOLVED! Full details now here...