YORK, Maine — Community members this week called for an investigation of voting results from Saturday’s election — and some called for a new election altogether — after the town clerk admitted that absentee ballots were sent to some residents that did not contain the single-sheet school budget validation referendum.
Town Clerk Mary-Anne Szeniawski told selectmen Monday night that due to human error, the school budget referendum was inadvertently left out of 100 absentee ballot packages — but that she and her staff were able to account for all but 22 of those voters. Still, she said, it was a “black eye” for the town. The Board of Selectmen took no action Monday night.
Most particularly at issue with the missing ballots is Question 2. Voters decided by a final tally of 1,768 to 1,797 to return the school budget to the purview of the Budget Committee, rejecting by only 29 votes the status quo — keeping the budget solely in the hands of the School Committee and school “town meeting.”
The number of voters who did not receive the school budget referendum was less than 29, Szeniawski reasoned, and she subsequently certified the results. In addition, she said, of 1,990 absentee ballots fed tallied last Saturday on Election Day, there were 857 “yes” votes on Question 2, and 1,133 “no” votes — or 43 percent to 57 percent. Therefore, she concluded, “statistically, the absentee vote favored the ‘no’ vote.”
Having said that, she told selectmen, “I truly apologize for this black eye that I have brought to town government. I’m embarrassed by what happened, it shouldn’t have happened, and I’m sorry it happened.”
She explained that on May 13, she learned that a small batch of absentee ballot envelopes had been stuffed without the school validation ballot. The problem arose, she said, because at the same time the envelopes were being filled, the office received supplies for the Maine June primary and federal November elections.
“Due to the space constraints of my office, I must not have repositioned the 11 boxes of absentee ballots for volunteers to draw from,” said Szeniawski.
She said when she realized the problem, she immediately asked all staff to stop what they were doing and check their supplies. She found that a bin of pre-stuffed envelopes had been prepared without the single-sheet referendum.
She and deputy clerk Mary Indiano came in the following day, a Saturday, and attempted to call all those affected. At the end of May 21, “there were still 27 voters who were lacking a School Validation ballot.” Of those, five did not return their ballots — leaving 22 voters potentially impacted.
A group of residents, including a school committee member, told selectmen they were so concerned about the irregularity that the selectmen should conduct an investigation. Some 149 people also sent a letter to the School Committee Monday morning, asking that board to investigate, as well.
In comments before selectmen, resident Annie Noonan said she was one of the affected voters.
“I have complete empathy for her situation,” she said of Szeniawski, however, “a lot of citizens are concerned about the process that would have volunteers stuff the ballot. The margin of error was so narrow I do feel it warrants further investigation.”
She was one of several who said she personally believes “the only proper outcome would be to conduct a new vote.”
“The idea is to make sure the process was done right,” said Jim Bartlett of the group Education Matters. “I don’t hear a clear explanation of what happened. This board in order to set this straight needs to conduct an investigation. Find out what happened, discuss it with public and put it to bed.”
School Committee member Dick Batchelder had nothing but praise for Szeniawski.
However, he said, “I hoped everything would be behind us the day after the election. [Sunday] was a tough day. Inarguably the election was sullied. I think that’s a shame.”
Board of Selectmen Chairman Robert Palmer said at the conclusion of the meeting that the board did not have authority to investigate, and that the issue rested with Szeniawski.