Matthew Woodbury is first in line, waiting for polls to open at the East End Community School in Portland on Tuesday morning Nov. 2, 2021. Woodbury, a carpenter, said he turned up early before work mostly to vote yes on question one. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Jerzy Sylvester, a 22-year-old Peaks Island resident, voted early for the November election, turning his ballot in at City Hall weeks ago. He cast votes in every race and referendum question. That’s why he was confused last week when the city reported that no voters had cast absentee ballots in five island elections.

Those races — for Peaks Island council and annual directors of the Casco Bay Lines ferry system — weren’t particularly close. Three of them featured candidates running unopposed and two others were blowouts. But city staff provided no explanation on Election Day why they weren’t tallied with the roughly 21,000 other Portland voters.

With all eyes on an improbable tied city council race headed for tomorrow’s recount, a batch of seemingly unreported absentee ballots among islanders has raised questions of whether the city’s initial tied vote was inaccurate. That matters because the election’s outcome could swing the balance of the council after progressive candidates took the other two council races.

To Sylvester, evidence of untallied absentee votes in island elections suggests that those same ballots were untallied in the city’s at-large city council race, which resulted in the first ranked-choice vote election tie in U.S. history.  

“I guess I’m just concerned that they may not have been counted,” Sylvester said.

Portland’s city clerk Katherine Jones, however, said that the worry is unfounded. Early votes cast by islanders for the at-large council race were properly counted, she said, even though those same people’s votes for island races went untallied in the initial report.

Late Monday morning, the city released a second tally of unofficial results for last week’s municip al election. According to spokesperson Jessica Grondin, these results addressed “a database issue” in the first reported tally that did not include votes cast by absentee voters for five island-specific elections.

The new results report includes roughly 130 early vote ballots for each island race. Previously those tallies were listed as 0.

It also reports different vote totals for all four candidates in the at-large city council race, which was decided by a lot pulled after ranked-choice voting resulted in a tie. 

The city’s second unofficial results say 6,266 absentee voters cast ballots in the at-large council race, compared with 6,071 in the first unofficial tally. The city released official results Monday night.

Candidates Brandon Mazer and Roberto Rodriguez tied with 8,529 votes apiece after two runoffs, according to the city. It’s unclear if the island votes were counted in that, though Jones insists they were. The city held an unprecedented tiebreaker by lot-drawing Thursday morning, following guidelines in the city charter.

Mazer won that drawing when a clerk drew a piece of paper bearing his name out of a wooden salad bowl, and Rodriguez immediately called for a recount.

The problem with the initial results released was that an IT systems coordinator for the city did not set up a database, so “there was no way to enter the [early vote] totals” for the five island-specific races, according to Jones.

“We didn’t report numbers for Casco Bay Lines Director and the Peaks Island [council race] because it was not in our database to put numbers in so that the public could see it,” Jones said.

It’s unclear when that was noticed and corrected.

The city of Portland has been criticized by the League of Women Voters, an election oversight group, for a lack of transparency around the ranked choice vote. The city did not publicly release results of the at-large race until Wednesday afternoon, after it had tabulated the ranked-choice vote runoffs and held a private meeting with Mazer and Rodriguez.

Peaks Island is an offshore community that’s considered part of Portland’s District 1. Residents there vote in both island-specific and municipal elections, including the city’s District 1 and At-Large council races.

A hand recount is scheduled to begin Tuesday, Nov. 9, at the Ocean Gateway Terminal. Both candidates will have a team of volunteers counting ballots at the live-streamed event.

Sylvester, who greeted voters last Tuesday on behalf of District 1 candidate Anna Trevorrow, plans to volunteer and recount ballots for Rodriguez.

Initial tallies released by city clerks on the night of Election Day are unofficial. Last November 2020, the city released official election results within 48 hours. This year, the city has not yet released an official total as of Monday afternoon, nearly six days after the election, because they have been busy producing the lot-drawing and setting up a recount, the clerk said.

The clerk said she would release official results as soon as they were finished.

“I just sent my paperwork to the state and so the city’s [official results] are coming. We’ve had just a few other things going on,” Jones said.

Correction: A previous version of this story included a typo on the number of votes Mazer and Rodriguez received before the recount.