AUGUSTA — In a dramatic turn of events, an inspection of ballots from Long Island on Tuesday showed that 21 votes for Gray Republican Cathy Manchester appear to have been counted twice during a Nov. 18 recount in Senate District 25.
That was enough to deprive Manchester of the victory she appeared to gain from the recount and send Democrat Cathy Breen of Falmouth to the Senate as the district’s senator for the next two years.
“I have full confidence that no one did anything wrong, that we have human error at the recount. I believe the people of District 25 have spoken, and they have spoken to vote Catherine Breen as their state senator,” Manchester said after a special Senate committee conducted an investigation into the Long Island ballots on Tuesday.
Manchester, who was provisionally seated by the Republican-controlled Senate last week, said she would tender her resignation, paving the way for Breen to be named to fill the seat when the full Senate casts a deciding vote, likely when it reconvenes in January.
The special Senate committee, tasked with finding answers in a hotly contested southern Maine election, watched Tuesday afternoon as Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn recounted the Long Island ballots and made the discovery that a batch of 21 ballots – all containing votes for Manchester – apparently was counted twice during the recount.
The committee, led by Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta and Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick, ordered an immediate recount of the Long Island election, which was overseen by Sens. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, and Tom Saviello, R-Wilton.
Flynn oversaw the recount, which showed exactly the results indicated by officials in Long Island on Election Day: 95 votes for Breen, 65 votes for Manchester.
“Extensive relief” is how Hill described her feelings after the mystery was solved. “I really didn’t want to see fraud. Mistakes, I understand, but I really didn’t want to think there could have been election fraud in Maine.”
Senate District 25 includes Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Gray, Long Island, Yarmouth and part of Westbrook. On Election Day, Breen was declared the victor by a 32-vote margin, 10,930 to 10,898, prompting Manchester to request a recount. After the recount was conducted on Nov. 18, the result flipped, with the GOP candidate appearing to have won by 11 votes.
After the recount, Democrats, including Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, raised questions about “phantom ballots” from Long Island. The town’s voter manifest indicates that only 171 voters participated in the Senate District 25 election, including absentee and overseas voters. That figure matched the number of ballots counted on election night.
But on the evening of the recount, 21 seemingly additional new Long Island ballots were discovered, for a total of 192. The extras were found in a grouping that Election Day documents indicated should contain only 21 ballots. However, it contained 42. There is no way to attribute the additional ballots to any documented voter.
It now appears that the “phantom” ballots can be explained by the double-counting of 21 ballots during the recount. A grouping of ballots, designated “A1,” should have contained 21 votes for Manchester, 28 for Breen and one blank ballot. However, when the lot was inspected Tuesday, only the 28 votes for Breen and one blank were found.
Flynn immediately offered an explanation: “I surmise the 21 votes for Manchester were counted, and got counted again.” She later said it’s possible that the 21 ballots were erroneously put into the next lot of ballots, when they should have been properly included with those already counted.
“I believe (the error) happened in the recount, and I’m chagrined to say so,” Flynn said. “I’d eat my hat, if I had one.”
Residents of Long Island, including election warden and Town Clerk Brenda Singo, appeared overjoyed at the revelation. Many said in interviews that they felt their town had been unfairly attacked by the media and others, who they said had insinuated that the small island community in Casco Bay had failed to properly conduct its election.
“Someone owes my town an apology,” said Annie Donovan, a Democratic volunteer election clerk. “We have a boat to catch.”
Singo said it took her a few seconds to realize what had happened after the error was discovered, but when she did, she felt a wave of relief.
“It’s been a very difficult two weeks,” she said. Singo’s husband, David, said his wife had barely eaten or slept during the recount controversy.
Last week, majority Republicans in the Senate voted to seat Manchester provisionally, despite a recommendation from Dunlap that Breen be seated until the investigation is complete.
At the time, the Legislature was preparing to elect constitutional officers and Democrats were clinging to such a slim majority that Manchester’s vote could have made a difference. It’s unknown what the votes for those three positions were because they were cast by secret ballot.
Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Attorney General Janet Mills, as well as University of Maine School of Law Professor Donald N. Zillman said Tuesday’s seating of Breen will not nullify the election of constitutional officers.
“We aren’t aware of any revote provisions,” wrote Feeley in an email response to questions from the BDN. “The Senate determined at the time of the Joint Convention who the members were who could vote.”
Feeley said this wasn’t the first time that a lawmaker seated on swearing-in day was later replaced, citing the election of Democratic Rep. Mike Shaw in 2006.
“However you disagree with the politics of it, there seemed to be a legitimate decision about who should be in the Senate seat,” said Zillman. “I’m just very pleased that they were able to find out the facts that happened. This has been explained and there was no evil conspiracy.”
The Senate is the final arbiter of who will be seated in a race that is still contested after a recount, and it will take a final vote after receiving the special committee’s recommendation.
Republican Cathy Manchester, left, and Democrat Cathy Breen shake hands while former lawmaker Meredith Strang Burgess smiles at them before a committee hearing on the Senate District 25 ballot issue on Tuesday at the Statehouse in Augusta.