In this Nov. 2, 2020, file photo, locked ballot boxes are seen in a room where the processing of absentee ballots takes place at City Hall in Portland. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Concerns about how the small Penobscot County town of Hudson conducts elections have arisen for the third time in less than a year, most recently over a list that identified 15 voters who requested absentee ballots in a municipal election.

The Maine Constitution guarantees voters the right to ballot secrecy, so selectmen are asking a Superior Court justice to determine the validity of disputed ballots in its recent close election for Board of Selectmen. The request for judicial intervention comes after candidates could not agree on voters’ intent in a March 31 recount.

Hudson is a town of about 1,600 located between Glenburn and Bradford.

This latest election trouble comes after Town Clerk Laurie Saunders failed to include 240 absentee ballots in the town’s November election tally. A recount with those ballots included took place in February.

And in a tight selectmen’s race last year, the losing candidate asked for a recount after she was defeated by just five votes. The town mistakenly made her pay $600 to conduct it.

This year, questions are swirling around absentee ballots that Saunders numbered and for which she kept a corresponding listing showing which voter received each ballot. That system violates the guarantee that how a person votes is secret. Also, the absentee ballots the town distributed were different from those given to residents who voted in person, another violation of election laws, according to former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

Saunders referred questions about the election to the town’s Bangor-based attorney, Jonathan Pottle.

Pottle said that the judge is charged with determining voters’ intent on the disputed ballots and making sure the recount process was transparent and fair.

This year, four candidates ran for two seats on the five-member board in the March 19 election. Incumbent Derek Goddard received 99 votes; challenger Roger Gray received 95; Dean Gray, also a challenger and first cousin of Roger Gray, received 94 votes; and incumbent Selectman Richard Gilman received 89 votes.

Goddard and Roger Gray now serve as selectmen.

Gilman challenged 12 absentee ballots, leading to the recount.

“We didn’t see an issue with them,” Roger Gray said.

Gilman, who referred questions to his attorney, asked for a recount even though he knew it would not change the outcome of the race for him. Rather, he wants Hudson’s election problems to end, said his attorney, Edmond Bearor of Bangor.

Gilman has not ruled out suing the town himself over the secrecy issue if the judge doesn’t address it, Bearor said. A justice had not been assigned to the case as of noon Tuesday.

“We contend [the numbering] voids the election,” Bearor said. “To not count them seems unfair to the voters and to include them along with the other altered ballots makes the ballots distinguishable. Too many mistakes in three consecutive elections.”

While the Maine Secretary of State’s office oversees state elections, state law outlines how towns and cities should conduct their own elections, including recounts. Towns, like Hudson, whose charters do not specifically address election procedures must follow state law.

That law tells candidates during a recount to first try to resolve any ballot disputes by consensus. If that doesn’t work, and the number of disputed ballots could affect the recount’s outcome, the law instructs the town clerk to refer the disputed ballots to the superior court.

Once the judge makes a decision, Saunders will prepare a final tabulation of the recount of the March 19 election. That could change the makeup of the board, according to Bearor, Gilman’s attorney.

There is no timeline for the judge to issue a ruling.

Lisa Nichols, who asked for a recount last year, was one of the voters who requested an absentee ballot in the March 19 election, she said. When she received it, she noticed there was a number in one corner.

“I asked the clerk about it and she said she had a list with the numbers and names of people who voted absentee,” Nichols said. “That meant my ballot wasn’t secret.”

Saunders apparently stopped keeping the list after 15 requests, according to Bearor. Just 12 ballots are in dispute because two were not returned and one was marked as spoiled, he said.

Nichols requested a recount last July after she lost a race for selectman by five votes. The election was delayed from March due to the pandemic.

She gained three votes in the recount and lost by just two votes. But Nichols said that she had to hire a lawyer to convince the town that she should not have been charged $600 to conduct it. State law says that candidates do not have to pay for recounts if the margin of victory is 2.5 percent or smaller when 1,000 or fewer votes were cast. It took two months for the town to refund her money, Nichols said.

Prior to 2018, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rather than superior courts decided cases involving disputed ballots. In January 2018, the high court broke a 173-173 tie in a Winslow Town Council election the previous year.

The court ruled it was not possible to determine one voter’s choice because there were “ambiguous marks” near each of the candidates’ names.

The court threw out that ballot as a result. Jerry Quirion, who continues to serve on the council, was declared the winner.