It had all the makings of the rarest of rare events — a political scandal in Maine. The recount of a razor-tight race in a hotly contested state Senate seat found that there were more ballots cast than voters to cast them in the small town of Long Island.

The disputed votes were enough to snatch victory from Democrat Cathy Breen and give it to Republican Cathy Manchester, the last indignity of an election that had many for Democrats.

Critics wanted a thorough investigation. Some wanted to see subpoenas issued, they wanted voters canvassed, they wanted ballots dusted for fingerprints. They wanted an inquiry that got to the bottom of the controversy, not just some quickie review.

And they got part of their wish. The committee did get to the bottom of the controversy Tuesday, but it certainly did not take very long.

It turns out that all they had to do was open the box and look inside.

The box contained 171 votes on election night when it was sealed and locked on Long Island by Town Clerk Brenda Singo. Two weeks later, when the box was opened in Augusta, it was found to contain 192 votes, 21 more than the number of voters checked off by election wardens.

But, like a magician’s trunk, when the box was opened Tuesday by the Senate committee, the number of votes was back to 171. When the committee recounted the ballots, they got exactly the same result as Singo’s crew had Nov. 4. The solution to the mystery appears to have been that while election clerks in Long Island did their job perfectly, the election professionals in Augusta — including lawyers representing both parties and officials from the Secretary of State’s Office — did not.

Once the discovery was made and the ballots recounted, Manchester resigned and Breen appeared to be on her way to represent District 25 in the Maine Senate.

If there is anything that can be learned from this episode, it might be the light that it shines on the highly partisan atmosphere in Augusta, where every move by the other side is interpreted as underhanded.

It didn’t take long after the recount for Democrats to start suggesting that this might have been a case of election fraud, even though that made no sense. Why would anyone risk going to prison for stuffing a ballot box, especially in a race that meant nothing in terms of control of the Legislature? Any suggestion that there might be an honest error behind the ballot discrepancy was dismissed as a cover-up.

The Republicans’ response was not much better. Party leaders defended the recount result, though it was their lawyer who had refused a second count after the 21 “extra” votes showed up, all for his candidate. Had he allowed the votes to be counted again, the error would have been found and the election-night result confirmed. But with their candidate ahead, the party wanted to stop counting, no matter how many ballots there were.

The other takeaway is the complete vindication of Long Island Town Clerk Brenda Singo. At every step of the process, she has been proven right. She stayed composed even when she was accused of being sloppy in counting and supervising the ballots. A mistake was made, but not by her. It’s a tribute to her effort and the hundreds of Mainers who stay up late every election night, guarding the sacred right of all citizens to have their votes counted.

Now it’s up for the Senate to formalize the voters’ choice and seat Breen. Then lawmakers should get ready to go back to work, putting the gamesmanship and suspicion that drove this process behind them.


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