Capitol Notebook: No more help for immigrants? No more 'phantom ballots'?

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Lewiston Mayor Robert McDonald surprised some observers at a legislative hearing last week with a comment he made about Somali residents in his city.

The combative mayor has in the past been critical of the influx of Somali refugees who have settled in Lewiston.

But at the hearing, the mayor acknowledged the high achievement of the students at Lewiston High School who he said are responsible for lifting the school’s low graduation rate.

“They work hard, and they’re smart,” McDonald said.

Lewiston struggles with many distressing urban problems, but it is benefiting from the ambition of its new arrivals, many of whom rely on the city’s General Assistance or welfare programs, until they can begin work. McDonald noted that the federal government limits the ability of these new asylum seekers to work for a period of time, and told lawmakers that his city cannot afford to fund General Assistance for them.

His remarks came during a long afternoon of testimony on several LePage administration bills that would slash General Assistance programs by tightening residency requirements and other methods.

One of the bills, LD 369, would effectively prevent asylum seekers and other immigrants from receiving help from city welfare programs. Other bills heard by the Health and Human Services Committee would require people to reside in Maine for a specified period of time before receiving help, and tighten other rules.

But the majority of speakers at the hearing supported the use of general assistance to help those who come here, having fled places like Rwanda. Several testified that they have succeeded and found jobs here, and that the state-funded, city-administered General Assistance support is an important bridge that helped them become productive in this country.

Recount rules

Portland-area residents probably remember, but might like to forget, the painful recount process that followed last November’s state Senate election between Democrat Cathy Breen of Falmouth, and Republican Cathy Manchester of Gray.

In response to that fiasco, which led to Manchester, who ultimately lost, being briefly seated in the Senate, Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, has proposed a bill to clarify the rules of the recount process.

It was a mystery that stretched over several weeks. The plot revolved around ballots from the town of Long Island that had been correctly counted the first time, but were then miscounted during the recount, reversing Breen’s slim victory, and awarding the seat to Manchester – who was seated in the Senate, and voted on the election of the attorney general, secretary of state, and state treasurer.

Senate President Michael Thibodeau finally appointed a Senate committee to review the matter, which had been shrouded in mystery because of discrepancies in the ballot totals from Long Island, and the appearance of what were dubbed “phantom ballots.” The committee quickly found the error: some Long Island ballots had been counted twice in the recount.

Manchester was removed, and Breen now represents the expansive district, which stretches from Falmouth, through Yarmouth, and up to Gray.

In introducing her bill, Cooper testified that the problem in the recount flowed from a decision by Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap not to allow a review of the Long Island ballots when the initial recount resulted in an odd discrepancy. Dunlap did not feel he had the authority to review the recount at that time, because the Republican Party’s attorney did not agree to the review. Dunlap then declared Manchester the winner.

Cooper’s bill, LD 1127, would clarify that a second count in a particular voting district (town or precinct) is not a full-blown recount requiring consent from both parties.

If those rules were clear during the election, Dunlap would have had the clear authority to review the Long Island ballots, and avert the painful and time-consuming process that followed.

Sidebar Elements

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.