[Image courtesy of wikimedia]
A controversial Maine Senate race was finally resolved yesterday when it was revealed that a mistake during a recount – and not so-called “phantom ballots” – had been the source of a sudden reversal in the aftermath of Election Day. The Portland Press-Herald has more:
A review of ballots from Long Island revealed Tuesday that a simple counting error caused a discrepancy in the state Senate District 25 election results, ending weeks of intrigue and swirling speculation about ballot stuffing and election fraud.
The discovery of the mistake – the double counting of 21 ballots during a Nov. 18 recount – effectively flipped the winner of the contest between Democrat Cathy Breen and Republican Cathy Manchester for a second time. Breen was the unofficial winner on Election Day, but the unexplained appearance during the recount of 21 “phantom ballots” from the tiny community of Long Island appeared to turn the contest for Manchester.
After the state ordered a review, it was determined that 21 ballots had been accidentally double-counted during the recount as part of a process where counters create small batches of ballots:
[A]fter nearly five hours of testimony during which Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn outlined in painstaking detail the chain of custody for election ballots, the mystery was solved. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the chairman of the committee, asked Flynn and a state trooper wearing rubber gloves to open the ballot container to compare the recount tally sheets with the number of ballots, which were divided into four separate bundles.
One of the bundles had 21 fewer ballots than it should have. The other had 21 more – all marked for Manchester.
Flynn, who said she had overseen hundreds of recounts in more than 25 years, was stunned.
“I surmise the 21 votes for Manchester were counted, and got counted again,” Flynn said. She said it was likely that the 21 ballots mistakenly had been put into another bundle of ballots after having already been counted in the first bundle. That would have happened during the recount, conducted by two political party-appointed counters and overseen by an official from the Secretary of State’s Office – all three of whom were there to verify the count and certify the results.
I know that there will be more investigation into how the double-counting could have occurred, but I suspect some blame probably belongs to the high-stakes, high-pressure environment that is now de riguer when close elections like this occur. That’s not an excuse, of course, but it’s worth remembering the next time a recount takes place under the (hyper!) watchful eyes of partisan observers. [I recently heard one California official say “we have one rule for recount observers – if we can hear you breathing, you’re standing too close.”]
The Legislature is planning to look into what exactly happened – until then, Long Island’s election officials are breathing a sigh of relief – and looking for vindication. These two reactions sum it up nicely:
Brenda Singo, the Long Island town clerk, also was feeling vindicated. She and several election clerks oversaw the Nov. 4 election and kept a list showing that only 171 voters entered the polls on Election Day. When the recount turned up 192 ballots, the scrutiny swiveled to Singo and Long Island’s 238 registered voters.
On Tuesday, Singo addressed a phalanx of television cameras and said she’d always been confident that she and her team had gotten the count correct.
“I’m a by-the-book type of person,” she said.
Anne Donovan, one of the other Election Day clerks, had a different reaction.
“Someone owes my town an apology,” she said.
Indeed. Stay tuned …