Among the eight trios charged with recounting the results of the Maine Senate District 25 election, they were designated “Team A.”

But the A-Team they were not.

“I’d eat my hat if I had one,” said a stunned Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, who oversees all things electoral in Maine, seconds after the mystery of 21 “phantom ballots” in the southern Maine district dissolved on Tuesday afternoon into one whopper of an “oops.”

Meaning the Debacle of District 25 – or, to be more specific, the tiny town of Long Island – was rooted not in what took place out in Casco Bay as election workers counted the votes for Republican Cathy Manchester and Democrat Cathy Breen late on the night of Nov. 4.

No, sir. The islanders, who correctly insisted they got it right all along, are now and forever off the hook. It was the recounters who goofed, by tallying 21 ballots for Manchester not once, but twice.

Worse yet, Team A’s error enabled the provisional seating of a senator who, in a moment of pure class following Tuesday’s re-recount, immediately stepped away from the chair that now rightfully belongs to Breen.


“I am disappointed at the outcome, but I have full confidence that Sen.-elect Breen will serve our district well,” said Manchester to the packed hearing room, as well as a statewide audience hanging on her every word via a live Internet stream.

Manchester later added, “I do hope that if there’s one thing to come out of this process, (it) is that we find out how that error was made at the recount and take every precaution so that does not happen again.”

Hear, hear.

Tuesday’s five-hour session by the Senate’s seven-member special investigative committee, formed last week to get to the bottom of the District 25 mess, could have been shortened significantly had the committee at the outset simply unlocked the metal box containing the Long Island ballots and started counting. When that finally happened after lunch, it took only minutes to determine that there were 171 voted-upon ballots inside – not the 192 tallied by the recounters back on Nov. 18.

But perhaps it was better that the ah-ha moment – when a Maine Attorney General’s Office detective, wearing rubber gloves, discovered that a lot of ballots presumed to number 50 instead contained only 29 – came only after Flynn provided a morning-long primer in everything from how the ballots are printed and distributed to how they’re recounted, if necessary, in a squeaky-close election.

Maine’s veteran election supervisor explained that in a sizable recount like that in District 25, where close to 23,000 ballots were cast, the work is broken down among small teams – each consisting of a volunteer for each candidate and an official from the Maine Secretary of State’s Office. In this case, Team A included Cumberland County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Rachel Hendrickson for Breen, former Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, for Manchester and Howard Jones representing the Secretary of State’s Office.


Their job: Recount the 171 ballots tallied, sealed and delivered to the state – in three lots of 50 and one lot of 21 – by the good citizens of Long Island.

Which members of Team A did. Or so they thought.

The problem: After counting Lot A-1, which contained 50 ballots, the recounters proceeded to Lot A-2, the one with only 21 ballots. But somehow, rather than pack up all the Lot A-1 ballots, reseal them and set them aside, someone apparently took Manchester’s 21 votes from Lot A-1 and plunked them on top of Lot A-2.

Thus Lot A-2 grew from 21 to 42 ballots, the total number of Long Island votes grew from 171 to 192 and, most significantly, Manchester picked up 21 extra votes that were never cast – enough to give her an apparent 11-vote win over Breen after other minor wrinkles in the district-wide recount were resolved.

Asked Sen. Bill Diamond, himself a former secretary of state, to Flynn at one point in her testimony, “Are you 100 percent positive that there are 192 ballots in that box?”

“Nine-nine-point-nine-nine-nine out to infinity, yes,” replied Flynn. “I mean, that’s what they arrived at – two people on opposite sides counted those ballots that were in the lots and arrived at the count.”


As a notably upbeat Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap later consoled his mortified deputy, “At least you didn’t say you were 100 percent certain. You left yourself a little bit of window.”

Dunlap, whom Flynn kept apprised by telephone throughout her ordeal, said he was “thrilled” with the outcome because in the end, “the integrity of the process is not in doubt.”

“Hey, I’ll take human error. It happened right there in front of everybody,” Dunlap said. “It was pure human error – and it was a shared human error. It wasn’t our guy, it wasn’t the Republican, it wasn’t the Democrat.”

Fair enough. But it was still a major screw-up requiring Dunlap & Co. to now pick up where the Senate committee so abruptly left off: Sit down with Team A and reconstruct, to the best of their recollection, exactly what happened as they transitioned from one lot of ballots to the other.

Then, as Manchester so poignantly requested, come up with a procedure to prevent that from ever happening again.

At the same time, the secretary of state might send a big thank-you note to Kate Knox, the attorney who represented the Democrats at the recount. Concerned about the conflicting Long Island vote totals, Knox refused to sign off on the recount and thus set the stage for Tuesday’s melodrama.


Beyond that, Tuesday’s drama will no doubt be followed by lots of noise over the next news cycle or two.

The buzz in the hearing room hadn’t even abated before the salvos resumed across the partisan divide: The Democrats claimed vindication for pushing back on the recount results, while Gov. Paul LePage took aim at “liberals (who) falsely accused Republicans of trying to manipulate the election with so-called ‘phantom ballots.’ ”

In other words, with the exception of a Senate that will soon include one less Republican and one more Democrat, not a lot has changed in Augusta – or on Long Island, for that matter.

Anne Donovan, a Long Island election clerk who shook off an incoming nor’easter and schlepped with her colleagues to the State House to face tough questions that never came, perhaps put it best to the State House media.

“Someone owes my town an apology,” Donovan said. “We have a boat to catch.”

Enough said.

Footnote: In last Wednesday’s column, I took issue with Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett’s criticism of calls by Maine Democrats for the investigation into what they at the time called “possible fraud” in the District 25 election. Bennett, in a subsequent telephone conversation, told me his criticism was directed solely at the Democrats’ rhetoric and that he fully supported the Senate investigation.

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