Thursday, 11 December 2014 00:00

Maine 'Phantom Ballot' Mystery Solved

Written by Brad Friedman | The Brad Blog

We recently detailed the fascinating story of 21 "phantom ballots", all cast for Republican state Senate candidate Cathleen Manchester, which, when reportedly "discovered" during a November 18th recount of the very close Maine Senate race, ended up flipping the results from the slim victory Democratic candidate Catherine Breen thought she had achieved on Election Night to a "win" for her GOP opponent.

In the tiny seaside town of Long Island, Maine --- and for the national media that followed it --- it was an inscrutable mystery fit for Murder She Wrote's Jessica Fletcher. Except that it wasn't murder at the heart of this mystery, it was a potentially 'stolen' election, which, upon additional investigation, has now been 'unstolen', with the state Senate candidate rightfully elected by the people of Maine's District 25 finally set to take her seat in the state legislature after another dramatic turn of events this week.

We recently detailed the fascinating story of 21 "phantom ballots", all cast for Republican state Senate candidate Cathleen Manchester, which, when reportedly "discovered" during a November 18th recount of the very close Maine Senate race, ended up flipping the results from the slim victory Democratic candidate Catherine Breen thought she had achieved on Election Night to a "win" for her GOP opponent.

The tantalizing mystery in the town of Long Island included 171 ballots tallied by hand there on the night of the November 4th election and the same number of voters confirmed to have voted in the town's official Voter Manifest, either by absentee ballot or at the tiny town's only polling place.

Like the public hand-count of all the town's ballots at the end of Election Night, Long Island's only polling place was overseen all day by its Town Clerk Brenda Singo (who, over the past week or so, had strangely, yet repeatedly refused to answer what we thought were fairly simple, straightforward queries from The BRAD BLOG about the town's precinct-based Election Night hand-count and the chain of custody process thereafter for its hand-marked paper ballots.)

During the recount of paper ballots in the seven towns comprising Maine's Senate District 25, however, a funny thing happened. 21 "new" ballots showed up in Long Island, all for the Republican Manchester, resulting in her being certified as the "winner" of the recount overseen by the Secretary of State's office and the Democratic Breen's subsequent contest of the recount results falling to the Republican-majority state Senate to be investigated and ultimately decided there.

Before the Special Committee, comprised of four Republicans and three Democrats, could convene, the outcome didn't look good for the Democrats. The GOP majority "provisionally seated" Manchester, despite strenuous objections from state Dems.

The resolution of the mystery on Tuesday, however --- which resulted in one state official declaring "I'd eat my hat if I had one" --- has flipped the final results back to the Democrat once again, cleared the Town Clerk Singo and other election officials of further suspicion and, as we noted in our original report, underscored once again the undeniable fact that hand counting hand-marked paper ballots at the precinct on Election Night is the most reliable and publicly overseeable way of assuring that election results actually reflect the true intent of the voters...

Hand-counting vindicated

On Tuesday at Maine's State House in Augusta, the Senate's Special Committee held a "jam-packed" hearing, according to the Portland Press Herald's Steve Mistler, initially spending hours interviewing state and local election officials and other witnesses.

"Nearly 30 witnesses had been called to testify, including all of the election officials from Long Island who had been pulled into the controversy," the paper reports.

Then, following lengthy questions for and testimony by Deputy Sec. of State Julie Flynn who had overseen and signed off on the November 18th recount, the Committee did what they should have simply done in the first place, and what might have been done at the recount itself, had it not been blocked by Republicans: Flynn and a detective from the state Attorney General's office publicly hand counted all of Long Island's ballots again.

The Bangor Daily News' Mario Moretto reported the "dramatic turn of events" that happened next this way:

The first batch opened was designated as "Lot A2" - the batch at the center of the inquiry. The tally by Long Island election officials indicated there should have been 21 ballots there --- nine for Breen, eight for Manchester and four blanks. But as was the case during the recount, 21 additional ballots for Manchester were included, for a total of 42 ballots.

The next batch, designated "Lot A1," should have had 50 ballots, according to the tally sheet --- 28 for Breen, 21 for Manchester, and one blank. However, when it was opened, Manchester's votes were missing.

Flynn immediately offered an explanation: Manchester's ballots from Lot A1 had been counted twice. She said it's likely the ballots were erroneously put into the next lot before the first was properly put away, and then "rediscovered" as new ballots.

Moretto reports "The room fell silent as the news sank in for the partisan staffers and Long Island residents in attendance." It was a simple case of the same set of ballots mistakenly being counted twice during the recount.

"I believe (the error) happened in the recount, and I'm chagrined to say so," Flynn admitted. "I'd eat my hat, if I had one."

The new recount, Bangor Daily News explains, "showed exactly the results indicated by officials in Long Island on Election Day: 95 votes for Breen, 65 votes for Manchester and 11 blanks."

It's ironic that the problem occurred in Long Island of all places. As we noted in our initial report on this mystery, Long Island is the only one of the 7 comprising Senate District 25 which hand-counts its ballots on Election Night. All of the others use oft-failed, sometimes wildly inaccurate and easily-manipulated, optical-scan computer tabulators to tally hand-marked paper ballots. While the computer scanners may tally accurately, they usually are off by at least a few ballots and sometimes by a great deal and, in any event, its impossible to know one way or another unless the paper ballots are actually counted by human beings, as Long Island's were in the first place.

As The BRAD BLOG's review of the November 18 recount documentation [PDF] discovered, all of those other towns (save for tiny Chebeague Island) reported inaccuracies in the initial computer-tallied results once the paper ballots were subjected to a hand "recount" on November 18.

Unlike the computer-tallied towns in the District, other than those 21 "phantom ballots", Long Island's public Election Night hand-count had been perfect. The new public hand-count on Tuesday in the state Senate confirms that fact, and has served to vindicate the town, its Town Clerk, the 238 registered voters of Long Island, and the process of publicly hand-counting hand-marked paper ballots.

Republican resigns, Democrat to be sworn in

After the mystery was dramatically and publicly resolved, according to the Press Herald, Manchester, who was "seated in the front row for most of the morning, quickly departed." She had been provisionally seated by Republicans on December 3rd, when the new session of the legislator first convened.

She then returned a bit later to the room to announce her resignation.

"I have full confidence that no one did anything wrong, that we have human error at the recount," she said. "I believe the people of District 25 have spoken, and they have spoken to vote Catherine Breen as their state senator."

For her part, the Democrat Breen was justifiably jubilant. "I want to thank the committee for their dogged pursuit of the facts that helped us get to the bottom of the mystery on Long Island. I am grateful and humbled by the outpouring of support from the voters in my district and for Democratic leadership who stood up for the integrity of the electoral process," Breen said. "Today's answers will allow us to move forward and get to work on the issues that are important to Mainers."

BDN's Amy Fried pointed out on Tuesday that all of this could have been easily avoided. "There wouldn't have been any of this drama if the GOP had agreed to check the ballots again, as requested during the recount."

"No matter how understandable the double count is in retrospect, when the numbers didn't match the initial count nor the number on the voter roster, the simplest thing would have to been to do the count again," Fried wrote. "After all, we are not talking about thousands of ballots. By all counts, there were fewer than 200. If that had happened, everything would have been done right there and then. This wouldn't have been a news story or a mystery."

She went on to ding the new Senate President, Republican Sen. Mike Thibodeau, who, over the objections of Democrats, provisionally seated Manchester last week. "It's unfortunate that folks were disappointed with the outcome of the recount and are unwilling to accept the result," Thibodeau said at the time, dismissing critics who pointed out the lack of provenance for those "new" ballots tallied in Long Island during the recount.

On Tuesday, after the new recount, Thibodeau was a bit more contrite when asked for comment: "You can't read my word balloon, man."

Fried offered one more piece of advice which should be well-taken by all partisans: "Republicans and Democrats should both take this to heart and not try to resolve contested elections before all the facts are in."

We might add: "...and until all of the votes are publicly hand-counted and reconciled with the poll books."

About that Town Clerk...

When the story of Maine's "phantom ballots" first broke, we attempted to contact Long Island Town Clerk Brenda Singo to ask about the specific processes used for her town's hand-counting on Election Night and for the chain of custody of ballots thereafter.

Our emailed questions had been pretty straightforward, since criticism had flared up in the media and on the Internet against her, despite the fact that it appeared she was likely innocent in the matter. After all, while some had claimed she was the one with access to the ballots, so the first "suspect" in the matter, she had also been the one to sign off on not only the 171 ballots counted on Election Night, but also on the 171 voter names present in the Voter Manifest. If she was going to help steal the election for Republicans, waiting until after the public hand-count on Election Night to add 21 ballots to the box would be an ill-advised way to do so, particularly when the initial public hand-count also perfectly matched the voter registry.

The BRAD BLOG was the only outlet, to our knowledge, to note that the town's Election Night hand-count --- the only town to hold such a count --- was perfect. We had hoped this "mystery" would not, therefore, be used to try and discredit public, precinct-based hand-counting on Election Night --- what we describe around here as Democracy's Gold Standard.

Nonetheless, Singo refused to answer our simple questions about the town's procedures, telling us that she would answer any and all questions, but only after her testimony to the state Senate. That response was puzzling and became more frustrating still, once the Special Committee decided to postpone its initial meeting by a week.

"I will be available to answer questions, and provide information regarding the procedure of the election following the hearing next Tuesday," she wrote to us. "I will keep you updated should there be any further changes."

When we questioned why she couldn't respond to the simple procedural questions, as pretty much every election official we've ever queried on such mundane issues has in the past, she responded: "Once I have had my opportunity to speak with the Senate panel, I will be more than accommodating to address any inquiries. I'm asking that you respect my position in this matter."

It was as if she was facing a criminal investigation. At the time, she was not and --- with the ballots in custody of the state by that time --- surely she must have known she was not guilty of any wrong-doing at all. Refusing to respond was an odd position for her to take, particularly with a media outlet which was actually somewhat sympathetic to her (if always skeptical of everybody) in this matter. Her response resulted in more suspicion, rather than less, and seems, ultimately, to have been ill-advised.

Nonetheless, we waited for the hearing, and today, it seems, Singo, who has been the Town Clerk since 1999, is clearly vindicated. A less thoughtful media outlet might have gone after her for her bizarre refusal to answer questions, however.

"It's been a very difficult two weeks," she told local media at the State House after the dramatic conclusion of the mystery. Singo said she's "a very by-the-books person", explaining to local reporters: "I have the checklist provided by the Secretary of State's office. When the polls close, we go step by step, dot our i's and cross our t's to the best of our ability."

As of publication, we have yet to receive the answers she previously promised. But, given that the mystery is now "solved" --- and public hand-counting of paper ballots has been vindicated once again --- most of those questions no longer matter quite as much.

It's nice to see, in any event, that we finally have an "election fraud" mystery with a conclusive conclusion. It's nicer still to see that it was publicly hand-counted, hand-marked paper ballots that made all the difference by settling this mystery for all voters, including supporters of both the winner and the loser alike in Maine's Senate District 25 election.

Link to original article from The Brad Blog

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