The Maine Attorney General's Office have received a complaint regarding a miscount of votes in Hope's 2020 municipal election. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

The Maine Attorney General’s Office has received a complaint regarding a miscount of votes during Hope’s municipal election last summer.

The complaint comes at a time when Hope is trying to move forward from the July 14 election, in which town officials have acknowledged that errors were made in the counting of votes. The town’s select board has spent the last six months looking into the matter and have found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing by town office staff.

About 480 ballots were cast in the municipal election. But the miscount resulted in vote totals for specific ballot referendums ranging from 463 to 548 ― the latter of which would be impossible since this number is higher than the total ballots cast. However, because the errors were not discovered within 30 days after the election, there is no recourse that the town can take to correct the results.

“The election results, by state law, were deemed final 30 days after the election. There is no purpose served by continuing to discuss the July 2020 election, because the results cannot legally be changed,” Hope Select Board Chair Sarah Ann Smith said at a meeting Tuesday. “We made some mistakes, we corrected them, and there are insufficient facts to determine everything that transpired.”

A formal investigation by the attorney general’s office has not yet been opened in response to the complaint. Investigators are working to gather additional information on the matter, according to a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office.

The select board ― based on the findings of an independent inquiry into the matter ― has determined that the miscount was largely due to a lack of knowledge regarding how to oversee an election process because the town office was short staffed at the time.

“We discovered some processing errors attributable to lack of training, knowledge, COVID requirements and being understaffed for which we have apologized and taken steps to correct as demonstrated by the successful November election. There was and is no evidence of fraud, malfeasance or intentional mishandling,” Smith said Tuesday.

Like many Maine towns that do business through an annual town meeting format, Hope opted to conduct a vote on its annual budget via a secret ballot process last summer because COVID-19 restrictions prohibited large gatherings.

Hope residents voted on 25 ballot measures during the July 14 election, which altogether made up the proposed 2020-2021 municipal budget. The reported results varied for each ballot item, with vote totals ranging from a low of 463 on one item to a high of 548 on another. When the tally sheets used by town staff to compile results were finally unsealed Friday, it was discovered that 481 total municipal ballots were processed, meaning that there were too few ballots to result in vote totals exceeding that number.

Interim town clerk David Herrick, who did not work for the town during the July 14 election, said Tuesday that while there were errors, there “were no extreme errors in the process of counting ballots” based on his review of the tally sheets.

Since the errors were discovered beyond the time frame that would have legally allowed for a full recount, it is not clear if the success or failure of specific ballot measures would have been impacted by the miscount. Smith said it “is very unlikely that the outcome of the municipal referendum would have been any different had there been not procedural errors.”

According to the results, most measures were decided by a wide margin of votes, though some only had slimmer margins, including one ballot measure aimed at amending the town’s animal control ordinance that failed by a single vote. This question was also placed on the ballot during the November election and passed at that time, Smith said, though a larger number of voters participated in the November election.

A lawyer specializing in municipal law has advised the town to proceed with reliance on the results, even if there were errors made in the counting process.

“At this point, six months past the election, my advice is to proceed with reliance on the election outcome,” attorney Kristin Collins, of the law firm Preti Flaherty, said in a February letter to the board. “The information gleaned from these tally sheets could inform future counting processes but could not be used to change the results of the election.”

Allegations of a miscount and general mismanagement by the town’s administrator were first brought to the select board in August by the town’s former registrar of voters, who also served as the bookkeeper. The individual was on a six-month probationary period, having been hired in February 2020, and was terminated on Aug. 7. The exact reasoning for the termination was not publicly discussed, though Smith said the employee was fired from the position as “a result of unsatisfactorily completing his probation.”

The selectboard hired an attorney to act as an independent investigator on the election miscount and town office management allegations this fall.

While the report was not made public because it related to a personnel matter, the inquiry found that counting errors were made because of “elements of disorganization due to inexperience and a confluence of circumstances” and “there was no evidence of fraud or attempts to subvert the electoral process,” according to a December statement from the select board.

The select board said that a “perfect storm” of factors resulted in the tallying errors, including the fact that the town clerk ― who would normally oversee the election ― went on an extended leave just 10 days before the July 14 election. This meant that the town administrator, who had never overseen an election, was responsible for doing so without having received the proper training.

As a result of the inquiry, the select board felt confident that no town employee should receive disciplinary action.

However, the issue has prompted the town to make several changes, including increasing the cross-training of town employees to make sure they can do multiple jobs if necessary. The combined role of the town administrator and code enforcement officer will also be split into two separate jobs to take the burden off the town administrator.

Smith said Tuesday that while the select board considers the matter closed, the town will comply with any requests from the attorney general’s office on the matter.

Correction: A previous version of this did not correctly state the outcome of the animal control ordinance amendment.