AUGUSTA — A simple counting error was revealed Tuesday during a review of the state Senate District 25 race, a discovery that ended several weeks of intrigue and swirling speculation about ballot-stuffing and election fraud.

The mistake — the double counting of 21 ballots during the Nov. 18 recount — effectively flips the contest between Democrat Cathy Breen and Republican Cathy Manchester for a second time. Breen was the unofficial winner on Election Day, but the recount and the sudden and unexplained appearance of 21 “phantom ballots” from the tiny community of Long Island appeared to turn the contest for Manchester. Now, with the mistake revealed and election officials on Long Island vindicated, Breen is expected to be seated when the Republican-controlled Senate reconvenes in January.

“Every step of this has been surprising to me,” Breen said. “So this goes along with a path of surprises.”

The revelation came during a jam-packed hearing at the State House. The highly anticipated review of the Long Island ballots was preceded by weeks of widespread theories and rumors about ballot irregularities. The possible discovery of wrongdoing loomed. News media members snapped photos of the locked ballot containers as they were brought into the hearing room by the Maine State Police. Nearly 30 witnesses had been called to testify, including all of the election officials from Long Island who had been pulled into the controversy.

Then, after nearly five hours of testimony during which Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn outlined in painstaking detail the chain of custody for election ballots, the mystery was solved. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the committee chairman, asked Flynn and a state trooper wearing rubber gloves to open the ballot container to compare the recount tally sheets with the number of ballots divided into four separate bundles.

One of the bundles had 21 fewer ballots than it should have. The other had 21 more — all for Manchester.

Flynn, who said she had overseen hundreds of recounts in over 25 years, was stunned.

“I surmise the 21 votes for Manchester were counted, and got counted again,” she said, adding that it was likely that the 21 ballots had been put into another bundle of ballots mistakenly despite already having been counted in the first bundle. That would have happened during the recount, conducted by two party-appointed counters and overseen by an official from the Secretary of State’s Office — all three of whom were there to verify the count and certify the results.

“I believe (the error) happened in the recount, and I’m chagrined to say so,” Flynn said. “I’d eat my hat, if I had one.”

The discovery rippled through the room. Manchester, seated in the front row for most of the morning, quickly departed but later returned to say she’d resigned her seat. She thanked the panel and said she was glad that the Maine State Police — which maintained custody of the ballots — and Long Island officials were exonerated of any claims of foul play.

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

In addition to Long Island, the District 25 seat represents Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, Gray, Chebeague Island and part of Westbrook.

On election night, Breen was the apparent winner, 10,930-10,898. After the recount, Manchester was in the lead, 10,927-10,916. The final recount total included ballots from other towns that had been missing or whose tally changed.

Breen challenged the results of the recount, prompting the Secretary of State’s Office to refer the election’s outcome to the special Senate committee, which was appointed by Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau.

Democratic operatives and lawmakers, who had urged an exhaustive review of the recount, were giddy, vindicated by the outcome. Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said, “Mainers got the answers they deserve” before criticizing Republicans, and Thibodeau in particular, for dismissing early calls for a review of the ballots and moving to provisionally seat Manchester last week.

The full Senate now will have to vote in January on seating Breen.

Thibodeau, his caucus decreased by one member but still in possession of the majority, was seen in the hallway after the announcement. He declined to comment on the spot but implied that his thoughts might not be suitable for print, saying, “You can’t read my word balloon, man.”

Last month, before he appointed the committee, Thibodeau said he hadn’t seen any evidence of ballot irregularities.

“It’s unfortunate that folks were disappointed with the outcome of the recount and are unwilling to accept the result,” Thibodeau said then. “There’s no question that Cathy Manchester has more votes than Cathy Breen based on that recount.”

On Tuesday, Thibodeau issued a prepared statement after the hearing and called for a review of how such a mistake could have occurred.

“The candidates and the people of Senate District 25 — Long Island, especially — were put through weeks of uncertainty and media scrutiny following the recount,” he said.

Meanwhile, Brenda Singo, the Long Island town clerk, also was feeling vindicated. She and several election clerks oversaw the Nov. 4 election and kept a list showing that only 171 voters entered the polls on Election Day. When the recount turned up 192 ballots, the scrutiny swiveled to Singo and Long Island’s 238 registered voters. Had Singo’s crew screwed up? Were they complicit in cooking the race for Manchester?

Not a chance, according to two Long Island election clerks who spoke with the Portland Press Herald last week.

On Tuesday, Singo addressed a phalanx of television cameras and said she’d always been confident that she and her team had gotten the count correct.

“I’m a by-the-book type of person,” she said.

Anne Donovan, one of the other Election Day clerks, had a different reaction.

“Someone owes my town an apology,” she said.

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