Paul LePage speaks during Tuesday night's gubernatorial debate.
Republican Paul LePage participates in a gubernatorial debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. LePage is challenging Democratic Gov. Janet Mils. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — While he wavered on certifying the results of Maine’s 2016 election, then-Gov. Paul LePage wanted ballots to be hand-counted and was warned by his top lawyer that failing to sign off could subject him to criminal liability.

The Republican ultimately chose to certify the results, but he sent a new crop of lawmakers a form letter saying he had “strong concerns regarding the integrity of Maine’s ballot” and could not attest to the results. He cited no evidence, but had earlier said elections are illegitimate without voter ID laws. Afterward, he singled out voting tabulators used across Maine.

A written exchange between LePage and his chief lawyer, Avery Day, shows he was focused on baseless allegations about the tabulators. Discovered by the Bangor Daily News at the Maine State Archives in September, it fleshes out the former governor’s thinking and showed how he wanted to change the election at the last minute, though there were no legal means to do so.

Maine elections are administered by city and town clerks, who independently count votes before sending them to be certified by the secretary of state’s office. Voter fraud is extremely rare, here and nationally. In recent Maine elections, it has only been charged under isolated circumstances.

LePage’s push for hand-counted elections was somewhat ahead of its time. After a 2020 election marked by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election, the Associated Press counted six states where lawmakers had introduced bills to require them, even though a 2018 study found scanners are better than humans at the tedious task.

Despite telling WGAN the 2020 election was “stolen” and writing “stolen election” on the certification of U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s 2018 ranked-choice voting win in Maine’s 2nd District, LePage said at a Tuesday debate with Gov. Janet Mills that he had “never rejected any election, including the last presidential election” and would “absolutely” accept the 2022 outcome.

Day, now in private practice, declined to comment on the exchange. LePage strategist Brent Littlefield did not answer questions about the 2016 exchange and whether the former governor still has concerns about the tabulators.

“Our campaign is focused on the economy and moving Maine forward,” he said.

On Nov. 3, 2016, five days before Mainers voted, a Day memo to LePage noted constituents had contacted the then-governor about the validity of elections based on tabulator software that has come under criticism for security flaws. But Day attached a message from Julie Flynn, the deputy secretary of state who heads elections, saying Maine never used the software.

LePage breezed past that in a handwritten note back to his lawyer, saying he was “sensing a desire to overlook the potential of a problem” and requested that all ballots be hand-counted.

“This is serious!!!” he wrote.

At that time, the tabulators from Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software were used in roughly half of Maine cities and towns, while the rest counted by hand. They count the paper ballots used across Maine, are never connected to the internet and get tested at the federal, state and local levels before they are deployed.

Since then, their use has expanded to all Maine cities and towns with more than 1,000 voters and most with more than 700, said Emily Cook, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. The machines provide printouts of the tabulations that are used to report unofficial and official results. Recounts are done by hand in Maine races that remain close.

Maine’s 2016 election was mixed. Trump won the 2nd District but lost the state to Democrat Hillary Clinton. Republicans held the 2nd District and the Maine Senate. But referendums opposed by LePage on the minimum wage, marijuana legalization, ranked-choice voting and education funding passed.

Approximately two weeks after Day’s initial memo, he followed up with LePage to lay out his options around certifying the election results, noting the then-governor was “hesitant” to do so. But the lawyer said this was not an option because state law directed him to. If he did not, he could face a misdemeanor charge for neglecting official duties or impeachment.

Day looked to mollify LePage with a few options, saying official documents could be signed by stamp, he could send a letter to the secretary of state to express concerns about the use of the tabulators or he could release a public statement on the issue. LePage chose the latter.

“There are serious flaws in elections in our system,” he said in a note responding to Day.

Though LePage’s lawyer contacted his office for information, Matt Dunlap, a Democrat who was the secretary of state at the time, said concerns about tabulators were never brought to him and he called the former governor’s focus on the subject cynical.

“I cannot believe that a public official would engage in rhetoric that would discourage people from participating in their own democratic form of self-governance,” he said.

While LePage moved away from his hard line on elections in the first debate with Mills and independent longshot Sam Hunkler, he revived unsubstantiated voting claims earlier in the campaign by saying people were bused from Massachusetts to Waterville to vote in Maine’s 2009 referendum on same-sex marriage. 

Maine is among 15 states that do not require any form of ID at the polls, although it is required to register. Voter ID laws are roundly supported by Republicans and poll well with the public. Democrats generally oppose them fearing discriminatory effects. However, a 2018 study found little effect on both fraud and turnout.

LePage has called a voter ID law one of his top priorities if he goes back to the Blaine House, saying in the debate that the state should simply give eligible voters an ID if they lack one.

“Why are you against voter ID?” LePage asked Mills later in the debate.

“We don’t need it. We have integrity in our elections,” Mills replied. “We have a huge turnout, which validates our democracy.”

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...