The discovery of 21 previously uncounted ballots from Long Island and their impact on the Senate District 25 race has conjured up images of nefarious political operatives covertly stuffing ballot boxes to tilt the election.

That scenario would require a serious breach of Maine election law, which specifies an elaborate and detailed set of procedures to secure ballots – especially those subject to a recount – according to state election officials.

If those procedures were followed, someone would have had to obtain a single key to reopen a locked metal box of ballots without disturbing an official seal to add the 21 ballots to the 171 ballots that were tabulated on Election Day.

The 21 ballots were not discovered until a Nov. 18 recount in the race between Republican Cathy Manchester of Gray and Democrat Cathy Breen of Falmouth. The ballots were not formally challenged by Democrats during the recount, but they are now at the center of a mystery over why they weren’t counted when the polls closed on the night of Nov. 4, or how they ended up in a box that at several points was in the custody of Maine State Police.

The 21 ballots, all for Manchester, brought the total number of votes cast in the town of Long Island to 192 and effectively changed the winner from Breen to Manchester. Before the ballots turned up in the recount, Breen was the apparent winner, 10,930 to 10,898. After the recount, Manchester was in the lead, 10,927 to 10,916. The final total includes ballots from other towns that had been missing or were changed.

The Maine Democratic Party is calling for a new recount and an investigation. It also wants a yet-to-be constituted special Senate committee to subpoena the Long Island town clerk to explain why the sealed ballot box contained 192 ballots when the official tally listed only 171.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat who oversaw the recount, has declined to initiate an investigation and deferred to the incoming Republican-controlled committee, which will have broad discretion as it evaluates the recount results and makes a recommendation to the full Senate on who won the election. In addition to Long Island, the District 25 seat represents Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, Gray, Chebeague Island and part of Westbrook

Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who is expected to be the next Senate president and will appoint the special committee, told the Portland Press Herald this week that he has yet to see any evidence of ballot irregularities.

“It’s unfortunate that folks were disappointed with the outcome of the recount and are unwilling to accept the result,” Thibodeau said. “There’s no question that Cathy Manchester has more votes than Cathy Breen based on that recount.”

Thibodeau said he will follow precedent from previous Senate election committees and name a seven-member panel, with four of the seats to be held by Republicans. He said he would accept nominations from Democrats for the three other seats.

The controversy has raised questions and created confusion about how ballots are secured on and after Election Day.

According to Melissa Packard, director of Elections and Administrative Procedure with the secretary of state, Maine election law prescribes a strict chain-of-custody procedure for ballots, both before Election Day and after the polls close. Additional protocols exist in the event of a recount and involve the retrieval and storage of locked ballot boxes by state police.

The process begins before Election Day, Packard said.

First, a predetermined number of Election Day and absentee ballots are mailed by the secretary of state to each town clerk based on the latest voter registration data and absentee ballot requests. There are 238 registered voters in the town of Long Island, including 84 Democrats, 70 Republicans, 78 unenrolled and six Green Independents.

The mailed ballots are not in a locked container, but are sealed with a receipt. Once the clerk receives the ballots, he or she is required to count them and verify with the state that the number of ballots matches the receipt. The clerk then applies a tamper-proof seal to the ballot container.

On Election Day, the election warden – in Long Island’s case, Town Clerk Brenda L. Singo – opens the container of blank ballots. Under state law, the opening of the container must be observed by one election clerk each from the Republican and Democratic parties. The election clerks also are supposed to observe the entire voting process, Packard said.

The party-affiliated clerks also play a key role after the polls close. They participate in, observe and certify the counting and securing of ballots. After the count – which is done by hand in Long Island – and the unofficial results are determined, the ballots are separated into bundles of 50 each, and a tally sheet is wrapped around each bundle. One bundle will contain fewer than 50 ballots, unless the total number of ballots cast is an exact multiple of 50.

The 21 additional Long Island ballots were part of a bundle that contained 42 ballots, according to Maine election officials.

The election warden and the two party-affiliated clerks certify the results with their signature. The bundles are placed into one or more tamper-proof metal containers that are secured with state-issued locks. Each lock number is recorded on a voting certificate and the containers are locked in the town clerk’s office.

It’s unclear how or where the Long Island ballots were secured, or who may have had access to the office.

Packard said tampering with locked containers takes some skill. The town clerk is the only local official with a key to a ballot container, but opening one still requires breaking a certified anti-tampering seal.

In the event of a recount, state police are dispatched to retrieve the containers and the incoming voter list that shows who voted on Election Day. The containers are then locked in a room at the police barracks. Packard said the room isn’t opened until the recount, when election officials and attorneys for the political parties are there to observe. The secretary of state has a master key to all of the ballot containers, but he or she does not have access to the locked room in the police barracks.

It’s unclear why Democrats didn’t officially challenge the Long Island ballots during the Nov. 18 recount. Kate Knox, the attorney for the Maine Democratic Party, said the ballots struck her as “very odd” during the recount. However, Knox only officially disputed 10 missing ballots from Cumberland and Westbrook in the recount, even though those were not enough to overcome Manchester’s 11-vote lead. She refused to sign off on the recount, she said, after Bill Logan, the attorney for the Maine Republican Party, declined to take a second look at the Long Island ballots.

Party officials have since said that the Long Island mystery didn’t come into full view until Monday, when Democrats reviewed the incoming voter list that showed only 171 people cast ballots in Long Island.

Dunlap, the secretary of state, said his office would have had more discretion to assess the Long Island issue if it had been raised during the recount.

State election officials don’t believe there’s a way to trace the mystery ballots to individual voters. When asked if the state could compare its Central Voter Registration database with the voter manifest to find the remaining registered voters who could have cast the 21 ballots, Packard said it wasn’t possible to “trace a ballot to a particular voter.”

Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Dunlap, said in an email that the list of incoming Long Island voters compiled on Election Day only notes the names of those who showed up to cast ballots.

“The 21 ballots that were counted at the recount but not on election night were not separated in any way that would allow them to be considered in any sort of separate manner,” she said. “There are 238 active registered voters in Long Island. … There were 171 names checked off on that voter list from Nov. 4 and 192 total ballots counted at the recount. Even if 192 names had been checked off, there would be no way to know who cast those particular ballots. It will be up to the Senate committee to investigate further.”

Manchester, the candidate whom Republicans believe has won the contest, said she was hoping for a quick resolution.

“I’ll be glad when it’s all over,” said Manchester, adding that she’s confident in the recount process.

Breen, the candidate who apparently lost, could not be reached for comment.

Both are expected to be in the Senate chamber Wednesday during the swearing in of the 127th Legislature. Only one of them will be provisionally seated while the Senate does its work on picking a winner.