Over the past few days, whether shoveling the driveway, eating turkey, or just trying to enjoy my time off for Thanksgiving, I’ve been unable to stop turning a problem over in my head: Where did those 21 ballots come from?

I’m talking about the extra ballots that were discovered during the recount for the Maine Senate District 25 race from the town of Long Island.

One hundred and seventy-one voters were signed in as voting on Election Day on the island, and 171 ballots were hand-counted that evening. Yet, several days later, when the race was recounted, 21 new ballots had appeared.

All of them were for the Republican, Cathy Manchester, and they were enough to flip the race in her favor. The recount ended with Manchester ahead by 11 votes (plus or minus a handful of disputed ballots from other towns).

This result seems on its face to be rather shady, and it’s easy to imagine theories of election fraud. In fact, what has me stumped is trying to think of a probable scenario where these ballots are legitimate.

The lawyer for the Senate Republicans has suggested that this could be a simple case of the warden failing to check off that many voters, but then what’s the likelihood that election workers would also fail to tally exactly that number of ballots during their first count?

Even if we assume that strange coincidence did occur (and that these just happen to be the worst ballot counters of all time, missing 11 percent of the total votes), the odds of all 21 of those votes just happening to be for Manchester are more than 2 million to 1.

According to statistics from the National Weather Service, it is 175 times more likely that you will be struck by lightning during your lifetime than that this 100 percent Manchester voting pattern would have occurred by chance.

The ballots on Long Island, unlike every other municipality in the district, were counted by hand, which could have provided an opportunity for fraud to occur.

If there were malfeasance, it may not have even been in Manchester’s favor – perhaps a supporter of her opponent had tried to remove those 21 ballots from the initial count (and somehow also changed the voter logs).

Ballot-stuffing fraud has occurred in Maine before. In 1992, Democratic aides broke into a locked room and altered ballots in a number of contested State House districts.

They were found out and Ken Allen, the executive assistant to then-House Speaker John Martin, served jail time for the offense.

In fact, this kind of fraud is much more likely than the all-but-non-existent in-person fraud that Republicans have raised false concerns over in order to justify their attempts to pass discriminatory laws making it harder for some people to vote.

It should be simple to investigate the mystery on Long Island. There are only 238 registered voters in the town (and some of those registrations are likely out-of-date).

The people who might have cast these phantom ballots can be easily interviewed to see if they voted. If enough of them say they did, then Manchester’s victory is almost certainly legitimate. If not, then some kind of fraud was likely committed on her behalf, and further investigation is warranted.

Unfortunately for those of us who want answers, Republicans refused to allow further investigation into these ballots during the official recount and now the job of investigating this election has been given to a Republican-majority committee of the Maine Senate.

According to press accounts, incoming Senate President Michael Thibodeau isn’t inclined toward finding out the truth.

“The fact of the matter is that we have had a recount and the results of that recount left Cathy Manchester as the apparent winner,” Thibodeau told the Bangor Daily News, saying that the committee could deal with the matter in a single meeting next Wednesday.

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

Several prominent Republicans have now called for an investigation and more than 2,500 Mainers have signed a petition calling for a full accounting of these irregularities.

It would be unfortunate for Thibodeau to start his tenure as Senate president with a nakedly partisan action like ignoring this potential fraud.

This mystery needs to be solved and Maine people need to be sure that our elections are fair and secure.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @miketipping