AUGUSTA, Maine — After mystery swirled around a contested southern Maine Senate district election for weeks, Catherine Breen — who saw Election Day victory slip from her grasp after an initial recount — is headed to the Senate after all.

Breen, a Falmouth Democrat, was declared the victor on election night by a narrow margin over her Republican opponent, Cathleen Manchester of Gray. Manchester asked for a recount, which was conducted on Nov. 18, and the candidates saw their fortunes reversed, with Manchester squeaking out an even tighter win.

Last week, Manchester was provisionally seated in the Legislature’s upper chamber, and Republican lawmakers had already taken to referring to her as “senator.”

Democrats raised questions about 21 ballots from Long Island seemingly discovered during the recount, all of which contained votes for Manchester. Those ballots could not be accounted for at any step of the chain of custody for cast ballots, and state and local election officials disagreed about the total number of votes that should have been tallied from Long Island.

But in a dramatic turn of events on Tuesday, an inspection of the ballots by a seven-member special Senate committee showed that the 21 “phantom ballots” didn’t exist. Instead, it was revealed, 21 ballots for Manchester were mistakenly counted twice during the recount.

The room fell silent as the news sank in for the partisan staffers and Long Island residents in attendance. The revelation was enough to deny Manchester the victory she and her Republican colleagues thought she’d earned, and she promptly offered her resignation.

“I have full confidence that no one did anything wrong, that we have human error at the recount. I believe the people of District 25 have spoken, and they have spoken to vote Catherine Breen as their state senator,” Manchester said.

After the committee adjourned about 4 p.m. Tuesday, Breen said she was happy with the result of its investigation and with the way it was conducted by the four Republican and three Democratic senators appointed to the committee by Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport.

“I want to thank the committee for their dogged pursuit of the facts that helped us get to the bottom of the mystery on Long Island. I am grateful and humbled by the outpouring of support from the voters in my district and for Democratic leadership who stood up for the integrity of the electoral process,” Breen said. “Today’s answers will allow us to move forward and get to work on the issues that are important to Mainers.”

The committee — led by Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta and Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick — spent much of Tuesday questioning Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn in an effort to construct a complete timeline for Long Island’s ballots, from printing to the recount.

The committee also included Republican Sens. Garrett Mason of Lisbon, Andre Cushing of Hampden and Tom Saviello of Wilton, plus Democratic Sens. Stan Gerzofsky of Brunswick and Bill Diamond of Windham.

After several hours of questioning, they watched as Flynn and Patrick Gagnon, a detective from the attorney general’s office, opened Long Island’s sealed ballot container and began recounting the votes.

The first batch opened was designated as “Lot A2” — the batch at the center of the inquiry. The tally by Long Island election officials indicated there should have been 21 ballots there — nine for Breen, eight for Manchester and four blanks. But as was the case during the recount, 21 additional ballots for Manchester were included, for a total of 42 ballots.

The next batch, designated “Lot A1,” should have had 50 ballots, according to the tally sheet — 28 for Breen, 21 for Manchester, and one blank. However, when it was opened, Manchester’s votes were missing.

Flynn immediately offered an explanation: Manchester’s ballots from Lot A1 had been counted twice. She said it’s likely the ballots were erroneously put into the next lot before the first was properly put away, and then “rediscovered” as new ballots.

“I believe [the error] happened in the recount, and I’m chagrined to say so,” Flynn said. She later added, “I’d eat my hat if I had one.”

The committee ordered another recount of the Long Island ballots, which was conducted immediately and publicly by Diamond and Saviello, under Flynn’s supervision. The recount showed exactly the results indicated by officials in Long Island on Election Day: 95 votes for Breen, 65 votes for Manchester and 11 blanks.

“Extensive relief” is how Hill described her feelings after the mystery was solved.

“I really didn’t want to see fraud. Mistakes, I understand, but I really didn’t want to think there could have been election fraud in Maine,” she said.

Senate District 25 includes Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Gray, Long Island, Yarmouth and part of Westbrook. On Election Day, Breen was declared the victor by a 32-vote margin — 10,930 to 10,898 — prompting Manchester to request a recount, which saw the results flip, with the GOP candidate appearing to have won by 11 votes.

A week after the recount, Democrats, including Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, raised questions about “phantom ballots” from Long Island after the voter manifest — a document used by local election officials to keep track of who has already voted — confirmed that only 171 Long Island voters cast ballots.

The recount, including the 21 mystery ballots, brought the total to 192.

Residents of Long Island, including election warden and Town Clerk Brenda Singo, said they felt vindicated after Tuesday’s investigation. Several said in interviews that they felt their town had been unfairly attacked by the media and others, who they said had insinuated that the small island community in Casco Bay had failed to properly conduct its election.

“Someone owes my town an apology. We have a boat to catch” said Annie Donovan, a Democratic volunteer election clerk. She was one of seven Long Island residents summoned to Augusta by the committee. None ended up offering testimony.

Singo said she felt a wave of relief when the error was discovered.

“It’s been a very difficult two weeks,” she said. Singo, who’s been the town’s clerk since 1999, told reporters that her confidence in her own election results had never wavered.

“[I’m] a very by-the-books person,” she said. “I have the checklist provided by the secretary of state’s office. When the polls close, we go step by step, dot our i’s and cross our t’s to the best of our ability.”

The special Senate committee will meet once more to confirm its official recommendation that the full Senate vote to seat Breen when it reconvenes in January. The Senate is the final arbiter in races that are still contested after a recount.

Top Republicans, including Thibodeau and and Gov. Paul LePage, accepted the results of Tuesday’s investigation but criticized Dunlap, a Democrat, for the recount mix-up.

“President Thibodeau followed the proper procedure to ensure the electoral process was upheld while awaiting the final decision from the Senate committee,” LePage said in a news release. “It is unfortunate that Cathy Manchester had to endure a situation that was created entirely by the secretary of state’s office during the recount. We thank her for her service.”

Thibodeau said he wants Dunlap to review the oversight protocols in place for recounts.

“The candidates and the people of Senate District 25 – Long Island, especially – were put through weeks of uncertainty and media scrutiny following the recount. No one else should be put through that,” he said. “It is now time to move forward and get to work for the people of Maine.”

When Breen takes office, Republicans will hold a 20-15 majority in the Senate.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...