AUGUSTA, Maine — After a recount error caused the wrong candidate to be temporarily seated in the Maine Senate, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap is pledging a full review of his office’s approach to election recounts.
But Dunlap said Wednesday he’s pleased that the system in place for disputed elections ultimately yielded the right conclusion, despite weeks of controversy surrounding Senate District 25’s election, which stoked fears about election fraud.
“It’s mortifying as all get out that there was an error at the recount, but the process worked itself out,” Dunlap said in an interview. “It also finally answers the question about who makes the decision about who gets seated: The voters do.”
The contest in Senate District 25 was always close. Democrat Cathy Breen was declared the winner on election night by just 32 votes. That prompted Republican Cathy Manchester to request a recount.
Democrats never accepted the recount results. They raised questions about a discrepancy in the reported number of voters from the Senate District 25 town of Long Island, 171, compared with the number of Long Island votes counted during the recount, 192. Some Democrats and their allies made veiled allusions to ballot stuffing and demanded an investigation into the “phantom ballots.”
That investigation was conducted Wednesday by a seven-member committee of senators charged with getting to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Long Island’s ballots. After several hours, it was discovered that representatives from both parties, under the supervision of a deputy secretary of state, accidentally double-counted 21 votes for Manchester during the Nov. 18 recount.
The revelation was enough to spur Manchester to resign immediately and pave the way for Breen to be seated when the full Senate takes a vote in January on who should fill the Senate District 25 seat for the next two years.
Lawmakers from both parties and election officials were relieved to learn there was no evidence of election fraud, ballot stuffing or other sinister acts, but questions remained about whether more could be done to prevent similarly impactful mistakes from happening in the future.
But the two leaders of the special Senate committee that spearheaded the investigation both said it was unclear exactly what could have been done to prevent the mistake — if anything at all. Both pointed out that hundreds of elections have been conducted in the state without a similar error having ever been discovered.
“I want to sleep on it for a few more nights,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. “We’ve had a system that has served us very well, and we don’t want — in an effort to make it better — to make it worse. This was clearly unintentional human error.”
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, agreed.
“Clearly, the humans messed up more than the system,” she said. “I don’t want there to be an overreaction.”
Hill said it might be worth considering increased authority for the secretary of state’s office, which oversees recounts, to investigate irregularities that appear when the ballots are counted. Dunlap and Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn both indicated during the Senate District 25 controversy that their hands were effectively tied.
Dunlap reiterated that point Wednesday, saying that his office is charged only with overseeing recounts. It’s representatives from the Republican and Democratic parties who actually hand-count the ballots.
“This is a process where the parties largely police each other,” he said. “The recount had been over for a week by the time anyone discovered we had 192 ballots but only 171 voters [from Long Island]. At that point, it was out of our hands.”
Still, Dunlap acknowledged that there are small steps his office could take. He said the state could require both sides to sign off on the results from each town during a recount, rather than simply signing off at the end.
During the Senate District 25 recount, questions were raised about seemingly new ballots being discovered in Long Island’s ballot box, but both sides voluntarily moved on to other towns. It was only at the end, when Manchester had apparently won by 32 votes, that Democrats refused to certify the recount results.
If both sides had to sign off on each town before moving to the next, Dunlap said, each side would have the opportunity — and responsibility — to press for answers to questions as they arose, rather than waiting until the end to see whether the ballots in question made a difference in the final result.
Dunlap also defended his office on Wednesday from attacks that had been thrown his way by top Republicans after the recount error was discovered, including by Gov. Paul LePage, who said Dunlap had “created” the entire controversy.
“The governor in particular was pretty strident in his remarks, and I’m sure he has plenty of moral authority to say that, because I’m sure neither he nor anyone in his staff has ever made a mistake,” Dunlap said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.