AUGUSTA, Maine — Incoming Senate President Mike Thibodeau, a Republican from Winterport, said Wednesday he intends to fast-track a Senate investigation into a disputed recount in the Senate District 25 election.
The outcome of the disputed recount could be decided in a single meeting before the election of constitutional officers on Dec. 3, the day a new Legislature is sworn in, Thibodeau said. As Senate president, Thibodeau will appoint a panel of four Republican senators and three Democratic senators to study the recount. Under Maine law, the full Senate will vote to determine the final outcome.
At present, Republicans hold a 20-14 majority in the Senate. If the recount that swung the District 25 seat from Democrat Catherine Breen to Republican Cathy Manchester is upheld, Republicans would hold a 21-14 advantage. If Breen is declared the winner, Democrats would have 94 total legislators in the House and Senate, assuring them a majority in votes for attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state on Dec. 3.
The impact of the disputed Senate 25 recount on elections of those constitutional officers adds urgency to Thibodeau’s actions on the matter.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the outgoing Senate president who will serve as minority leader in the new Legislature, said he hopes the process isn’t rushed in a way that would compromise Mainers’ faith in the electoral process.
After Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, formally closed the Nov. 18 recount — the results of which are contested by Maine Democrats, primarily because of questions about 21 “mystery” ballots from the town of Long Island — responsibility to decide the outcome of the race moved to the Senate.
Citing precedent from previous disputed recounts, Dunlap chose to seat Breen, who appeared to win by 32 votes on Election Day, instead of Manchester, who held an 11-vote margin after the recount.
Thibodeau said a quick decision on who should serve as District 25’s senator for the next two years is a priority. In the past, the process of appointing a study committee to send its recommendation on disputed recounts to the full Senate has taken up to several weeks to complete and has resulted in everything from quick, uncontested votes to all-out election do-overs.
“I think the committee could convene and go over the results on swearing-in day,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to figure out if Cathy Manchester has the most votes.”
Thibodeau said it’s his tentative opinion, based on information he has seen so far, that Manchester is the winner and insinuations by some that fraud could be at play in the election could damage the integrity of the new Legislature as it convenes.
“It’s unfortunate to throw around terms like that without some sort of substantial evidence,” Thibodeau said. “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. Because some folks are not happy with that outcome, they’re throwing around some pretty wild accusations.”
Breen and the Maine Democratic Party declined to accept the recount results because a number of ballots were either missing or disputed. This week, election officials confirmed that an additional 21 ballots from the town of Long Island — all of which were marked for Manchester — were not accounted for on voter manifests completed at the polls.
The election night tally reflected on the voter manifest from Long Island showed 171 voters cast ballot. The 21 ballots included in the recount tally would bump the number of Long Island votes to 192. Dunlap and Long Island Town Clerk Brenda Singo offered no explanation for the discrepancy.
If Thibodeau’s efforts to fast-track a decision succeed and the Senate accepts the recount results as calculated on Nov. 18, Breen’s stint as senator could be the shortest in Maine history at just a few hours.
Alfond said he hasn’t formed an opinion yet about who won the District 25 election, partly because there are so many “unanswered questions.” Answering those questions thoroughly is more important than a quick decision, he said.
“Sen. Thibodeau has a choice, a choice to ensure that the institution and the voters of Maine, and especially Senate District 25, have full confidence that every vote is accounted for and every vote can be explained,” Alfond said Wednesday. “I hope that on Dec. 3 he creates a fair Senate electoral committee that can take its time and be transparent to make sure every vote can be accounted for. … There are so many different questions from many different towns in the district about what the final vote tally was.”
Thibodeau and Alfond said Wednesday that no decision has been made on which senators will serve on the committee.
Manchester originally said she would not seek a recount after unofficial election night results showed Breen ahead by 32 votes. But she changed her mind, setting in motion the controversy that will be decided in the Senate.
“I think this is a learning process for everyone involved,” Manchester said Wednesday by phone. “I am anxious for the results to be completed, and I am looking forward to serving Senate District 25. I had hoped the election would be completed by Nov. 4, but now I am hoping for it to be completed by Dec. 4.”
Breen said voters expect elections to be precise.
“It is imperative that a proper and thorough investigation occur to determine where the so-called phantom ballots came from,” Breen said. “Casting our vote on Election Day is the highest form of democracy and we cannot settle for or accept anything less than a full understanding of what happened.”
Senate District 25 includes the towns of Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Gray, Long Island, Yarmouth and part of Westbrook.