AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate voted 21-13 Tuesday in favor of a bill that would allow the public to see copies of disputed ballots in close House and Senate elections.

The bill drew debate despite strong committee support for the measure, L.D. 277, sponsored by Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna. It has been passed in the House and faces final votes in each chamber before it is sent to Gov. Paul LePage.

“We have a democracy,” Fossel said. “Democracy works when you shine the light of public examination on it.”

Fossel has personal experience with disputed ballots. In 2002, he lost a close state Senate race in which the disputed ballots were never made public. At the time, the Senate’s balance of power was in doubt, with 17 members from each party.

Democrats swore in Christopher Hall of Bristol in December 2002, taking control of the chamber, even before final ballot inspections had been done. The Senate voted in January 2003 to confirm Hall as the winner.

Since then, various pieces of legislation have been introduced to address the issue of whether disputed ballots can be made public. Fossel’s bill would require the secretary of state to release copies of disputed ballots only if the anonymity of the voters could be protected.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, said that while “99.9 percent” of election recounts produce a clear winner, some do not. She said the public should be able to see ballots that are disputed by candidates and their lawyers before anyone is sworn in to office.

“The majority party can seat a member who is not obviously elected,” she said. “I see a problem with that.”

Democrats said releasing disputed ballots before a final decision would put elections in the hands of people who can afford full-page newspaper ads or draw out-of-state money for lobbying on their behalf.

Sen. Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham, said it would create more opportunities for groups to interfere with the electoral process.

“Do you really want every special interest in the state lining up?” he said. “It’s going to be litigated through special interests.”

Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Sanford, responded by saying that he would want people in his district to be able to inspect disputed ballots.

“Only in this building could something so transparent be twisted to suggest it’s about special interests,” he said.

The vote was nearly along party lines. Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, and Rep. Richard Woodbury, an independent from Yarmouth, sided with Republicans.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]