|12/4/2014 10:37:00 AM|
Eye on Augusta:Senate Seats Manchester Amidst "Phantom Ballot" Controversy
by Andy OBrienIn a rare move Wednesday, the GOP-led Maine Senate voted 20-14 along party lines to provisionally seat Republican Cathleen Manchester of Gray following a still-contested race for Senate District 25. The decision came despite a recommendation from Secretary of State Matt Dunlap that the Senate seat Democratic candidate Catherine Breen of Falmouth, who was the apparent winner on election night, until an investigation into ballot irregularities is conducted. Manchester was deemed the winner in a recount by 11 votes.
Dunlap, a Democrat, said traditionally the election-night winner is seated until a resolution can be found.
"The only reason [Republicans] would [seat Manchester] ... is if they think they have an honest shot at knocking off the Constitutional officers," said Dunlap on Wednesday morning. "Because really, why would you burn up your moral authority for nothing?"
Well, on Wednesday the Legislature was set to elect the offices of Attorney General, Secretary of State, and State Treasurer - and clearly every vote was considered crucial. On Wednesday night, Republicans were able to gather enough votes to unseat State Treasurer Neria Douglass in favor of their own candidate, former Democrat-turned-Independent Terry Hayes. Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills and Dunlap were able to squeak out wins.
Meanwhile, at a press conference earlier that same day, Breen and Democratic leaders argued that no one should be seated until a full investigation is completed.
"Today, I will not be taking my seat in the Senate Chamber-even though Governor LePage and Secretary of State Dunlap have summoned me to be provisionally seated as the winner of the election," said Breen. "Unfortunately, a dark cloud remains over the recount results in SD 25. And, until that mystery is solved and we know why there were 21 more ballots than voters, I believe no one should occupy that seat."
Next Tuesday, a special Senate committee will be investigating those 21 "phantom ballots" that mysteriously appeared during the recount that overturned Breen's election-night win over Manchester. Since the recount, the appearance of those 21 ballots has generated many questions and few answers.
The day after election day, Breen was the apparent winner by a vote of 10,930 to 10,898. On the tiny community of Long Island, the last town to report, the vote was 95 votes for Breen, 65 for Manchester with 11 ballots left blank. A total of 171 names had been checked off on Long Island's voter list.
However, following the recount on November 18, the results had reversed. 21 ballots, all marked for Manchester, somehow appeared with the Long Island bundles in the lock box, pushing Manchester to a win in the district by 11 votes, 10,927-10,916. The Secretary of State's Office confirmed that the official results sent by Long Island to the state listed the town as having cast 171 ballots, but the phantom ballots brought the total tally up to 192 ballots cast. This meant that 21 voters had not been checked off by the ballot clerks on election day and their votes had not been counted either, until the ballots were discovered at the recount. There are 238 registered voters on Long Island.
Nevertheless, while the Democratic Party's legal team claims to have "flagged" the 21 ballots and refused to sign off on the overall tally at the recount, it also did not officially dispute the ballots until after the recount had closed. Dunlap said he is not Constitutionally authorized to independently investigate the matter, which is now under the purview of the Senate.
"This type of discrepancy has not occurred in recent memory," said Dunlap. "It will be up to the Senate to try to discern what's happened here."
This week, Senate President Mike Thibodeau appointed a bipartisan committee of three Democrats and four Republicans to investigate the matter. The committee will be chaired by Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta), who said he plans to ask Long Island Town Clerk Brenda Singo, the chief election warden, to testify. Under election law, Singo would have had to count the ballots along with a clerk from a different party before certifying and signing off on the final count. However, according to the Secretary of State's office, Singo has been unable to identify who was there with her. Another possible avenue for the committee would be to interview the 67 registered voters who were not checked off on election day to see if they actually voted.
"It is deeply troubling to me, to Cathy Breen and to our party that there are more ballots than voters from Long Island," said Maine Democratic Party Chair Phil Bartlett in a statement on Monday. "This is a red flag that should be concerning to all parties involved - and no one should turn a blind eye to what may be ballot tampering. We urge the Republican Party to thoroughly investigate the mystery ballots on Long Island and to follow the facts wherever they may lead. The integrity of our electoral process is at stake."
Maine GOP Chair Rick Bennett fired back in a statement accusing Democrats of launching a "dishonest campaign" as part of a political attack strategy against Manchester by "falsely raising the specter of 'fraud'." He added that the Democrats' "entire communications strategy is now geared toward promoting conspiracy theories about an election recount they lost, partly because 21 votes for the Republican candidate were not suppressed."
In the past few years, the Maine GOP has been sounding the alarm about perceived voter fraud as a justification for a a range of voter suppression laws including repeal of same-day voting and requiring voters to show a photo I.D. before voting. But unlike widespread voter fraud, which implies individual or coordinated voter malfeasance, ballot tampering has actually been proven to have happened in Maine, as Bennett pointed out in his letter. In 1992, Ken Allen, a former aid to Democratic House Speaker John Martin, pleaded guilty to two counts of burglary and ballot tampering in two close House elections. The scandal help energize the movement for term limits in Maine and led to Martin's resignation as Speaker.
Posted: Thursday, December 4, 2014
Article comment by:
I like the illustration at the top. Is that an O'Chang comic? I think it's pretty weird to find 21 extra ballots after the box had come off of the island. As a former Island voter (a different island) I know how carefully they count the ballots and send them to the mainland. In my opinion someone stuffed them in there after they heard the results.
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