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A closer look at election concerns in Hope

By Daniel Dunkle | Dec 11, 2020
Source: File photo

Hope — Concerns about the vote counting in the July 14 election were raised by the recently fired former town bookkeeper at a Select Board meeting Aug. 11.

Select Board members and Town Administrator Samantha Mank discussed this Dec. 8.

The questions have been about the total numbers of ballots cast for each of the questions on the town meeting ballot.

Former Bookkeeper Langley Willauer stated, “Are the Board members aware that for the 25 ballot questions on the July 14 election, the vote tally for each question varied between 463 and 548 when by Maine Law every tally must be equal.(sic)”

This year, Hope had to change the format of voting on the town budget and town business. Normally this work is done in a traditional Maine town meeting where residents can make comments, ask questions, propose amendments, and decide by show of hands whether to approve or reject items. Since it was unsafe to have large gatherings this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the town had to go to a secret ballot process in the July 14 election.

A look at the ballot results on the town meeting items from July 14 shows that the total number of ballots cast (which you get when you add up all of the "yes" votes, "no" votes, and blanks) varies from question to question.

Here are the totals for each of the questions:

1. 500

2. 463

3. 487

4. 548

5. 504

6. 499

7. 502

8. 519

9. 511

10. 505

11. 498

12. 495

13. 496

14. 496

15. 500

16. 510

17. 500

18. 495

19. 500

20. 500

21. 500

22. 500

23. 500

24. 499

25. 500

Julie Flynn of the Maine Secretary of State’s office said that on the same ballot or any one ballot, all of the totals have to be the same.

She added, however, that the Secretary of State’s office does not have jurisdiction over town elections. It is involved with the state election ballots. There is no state agency charged with providing oversight to local municipal elections. Asked what recourse a person has if they disagree with how a local election was handled, she said they would likely have to hire a lawyer and file a legal challenge. State elections are handled under Title 21-A in state law and municipal are under Title 30-A (depending on whether the town has a local charter). Flynn said the reason for this is that towns operate under local rule.

One of the other questions raised has been about the difference in the number of votes between the state ballot questions in the July 14 Hope election and the town meeting items.

On the state bond questions in that election, 651 ballots were cast. That is 150 more than the average of 501 ballots cast on the town meeting questions.

The Select Board and Mank discussed this Dec. 8.

“One of the most important things that has come up in all of this, people have been very concerned about the integrity of the electoral process,” Chair Sarah Ann Smith said. “The way the November election went so flawlessly is testament to the fact that the Town Office staff figured it out and got it right, but we have some information, and I think Brian was going to ask some questions, that Sam could literally explain the process of what happens when the absentee ballots come in. How they get opened and what happens as you go along...”

Vice Chair Brian Powers then spoke to the issue.

“Hopefully this will quell some of the unknown of what happened with the ballot count, and I’m going to pose the question to Sam that basically hopefully she can fill you in,” he said. “And the question would be, when we received the absent ballots for the July election, did every envelope have the municipal ballots with it when it came back?”

“No,” Town Administrator Samantha Mank said.

“Many of the absentee ballots came back with just the state part of the ballot back,” Powers said. “Meaning however many pages of the municipal election, people chose not to send that back, which is totally within their right to do so, which would definitely skew the ballot count as to where these missing ballots would go.”

He continued, “This puts us at ease a little bit about why such a discrepancy, while we do not have an accurate count as to how many of these municipal ballots did not come back, but we do in fact know that many came back without either all or a portion of the municipal ballots attached, thus screwing up the count. We sent out 600 absentee ballots, we might have gotten... I say 600, we sent out let’s just say 100. We might have gotten 90 back; in those 90 there may have been 50 or 60 or 38 that didn’t have all or part of the municipal ballot attached to it. Thus skewing the numbers as to why we had X amount of state ballots but not the same amount of municipal ballots.”

Mank responded, “That’s absolutely correct. In addition, one of the things that both Langley and I learned after the fact was that when absentee ballots come in, they are supposed to somehow or other mark the envelopes indicating which ones were complete and which ones… we did not know that until after the election. One of the things that happened in July, but did not happen in November – it almost happened in November, but we caught it – was that when there is an over vote, meaning there is a ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ and both circles are filled in, that should be counted as a blank. In July, it was not counted as a blank; that question was just thrown out. That caused the uneven number, especially towards the end of the ballot. So you would have 500 at the beginning and I don’t know what the other numbers are, but they were smaller...”

Mank also said in the meeting of the November election, “We had no mistakes because we learned what those mistakes were in July. Langley and I did not find out until the Sunday prior to the [July] election that we would be doing the election.”

Smith said, “...The clerk is the individual in the Town Office responsible for running the election and literally less than five business days before one of the most important primaries that any of us can remember, we discovered we weren’t going to have our clerk, and even if we had, the poor thing still hadn’t been trained because there hadn’t been training from Augusta. So yes, there were mistakes, but in my book, the fact that Sam and Langley knew as much as they did and had as few errors as they did is actually pretty remarkable. If it had been any of us, if I had been in here, it wouldn’t have gone as well as it did in July. So yes, we learned things and we made mistakes, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Powers said it is on the agenda for Dec. 22 to discuss potentially getting a court order to open the ballot boxes that have been sealed since the election.

“It will truly probably come down to cost as to what this potential venture would cost the town,” he said. “If it’s an exorbitant amount, it may not be worth it. But then again, we will do what the people in the Town of Hope request and want. We will look into all of these possible… even though, it wouldn’t change any of the results, it would be: what is peace of mind worth?”

The Select Board also addressed the election issue in an official written statement dealing with a personnel matter involving Mank Dec. 8. The statement refers to the investigation of Portland attorney Maria Fox into allegations concerning Mank and the town government.

“As a result of the inquiry, the Select Board is convinced that there were elements of disorganization due to inexperience and a confluence of circumstances; some errors were made. However, there was no evidence of fraud or attempts to subvert the electoral process.

“It is important to recall the context including multiple complicating factors. These included but are not limited to a multi-day hospitalization for the Town Administrator in June and tragedy in late June that affected both the Town Clerk and the Town Administrator that involved the deaths of family and/or friends. There were also COVID restrictions as well as late and incomplete guidance from Augusta on the conduct of the elections. Very shortly before the election, the unexpected and extended absence of the Town Clerk just before the election led to staffing shortages. There ensued confusion from running an election with two town employees neither of whom had experience or had been able to receive training on this important function.

“Even though some people were aware as soon as two days after the election that there was an issue with the totals tallied on the Town Referendum, no one raised this fact until more than 30 days later. At that point, nothing could be done legally. If the Town had been aware within the 5-day limit set by state law, we could have taken immediate corrective action. Once 30 days pass, the results of an election are considered final. No further action can change the results according to state law.

“Much has been said about the election. Due to COVID, there was no in-person Town Meeting as is customary. The Select Board instead offered an informational meeting via Zoom (internet streaming service for meetings) on the Town Referendum on July 2nd that had very few attendees. Accordingly, the Select Board opted to do a mailing and have a second session on July 9 so that the citizens of Hope would be informed about the items on the town referendum. Of course, that means the July 4th holiday weekend was in between, with post offices closed. Mailing of postcards was complicated by a variety of factors, including significant limitations of the US mail system at that time. These mistakes were collective and not the result of any intentional act of any one employee.

“Additionally, it is clear from the public record that allegations of impropriety including violation of separation of powers, dishonest conduct, the handling of the Town Report, speaking with a member of the public, were made; in every instance we see no evidence of intentional wrongdoing. In a few of the many issues raised, there may be best practices that can and will be implemented to reduce future misunderstandings.”

The Aug. 11 statement about the concerns about the election came 28 days after the election.

On the question of the difference between the state ballot totals and the local ballot, while these elections may take place on the same date, they are viewed as separate elections and ballots, state and a local.

Here are some of the July 14 votes in other area towns to compare to Hope, showing the difference in state and local ballot numbers. Some local towns did not have local ballot items in that election. In some cases, ballots may have been town election items, but machine counted rather than hand-counted. The local items in Hope were hand-counted while the state items were machine-counted.

This was a quick survey of some of the available numbers, not an exhaustive comparison.

Camden and Thomaston did show some varying ballot counts on local ballots.

Hope

State Bond Questions: 651 ballots cast.

Town Meeting Items: 501 (average) ballots cast.

Difference: 150 ballots.

Appleton

State Bond Questions: 493

School budget: 490

Difference: 3

Note: Appleton issued a statement in August acknowledging a miscount of votes in its select board election caused by a programming error in the ballot machine.

Camden

State Bond Questions: 2,286

Local school budget vote: 2,251

Difference: 35

In Camden the school budget votes did vary slightly from 2,250 to 2,252.

Thomaston

State bond issue: 695

RSU 13 votes: 682-689

Difference: 13

Rockland

State Bond Questions: 1,691

Local school budget: 1,678

Difference: 13

Rockport

State Bonds: 1,174

School votes: 1,166

Difference: 8

South Thomaston

State Bonds: 372

School budget: 369

Difference: 3

Union

State bonds: 780

Town meeting items: 782

Difference: 2

Warren

State bonds: 807

School budget: 803

Largest difference: 4

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Comments (3)
Posted by: Florance Annie Merrifield | Dec 14, 2020 16:41

As retired Hope Clerk and Election Warden it is not uncommon to have a different count in State and Town Ballots.

Every absentee ballot mailed out would have a State Ballot and a Town Ballot in the envelope.  When returned to the office not all sent back the Town Ballot.  We usually had 45 to 50 residents turn out at town meeting.  As soon as the vote for the article they was interested in they left.  The last 4 or 5 articles most of the 50 had left.  Would you rather have 500 or 50 votes pass these articles?  Lets let this rest and get on with with the new year!



Posted by: Susan Reider | Dec 12, 2020 08:27

My first thought is that I don’t always vote on every single ballot question if I don’t have enough information about it. This seems like a personal vendetta against someone who was just doing the best she could under confusing and constantly changing circumstances.



Posted by: Bill Packard | Dec 11, 2020 17:59

Couldn't voters choose not to vote on certain articles is they had no position or did not feel informed enough?

 



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