If you believe that Americans are hopelessly divided about politics — though I count myself a strong skeptic — then you may be tempted to use Waterville politics as an example to prove your point.

Through hotly contested elections, an attempt to recall the mayor, charges and counter-charges, and heated city council proceedings, Waterville seems to have been through it all.

It couldn’t have become this way, however, without the example of Mayor Nick Isgro, who can be counted on to stir the pot in a way that’s become all too familiar, from the White House on down.

The flashpoint this time was a simple referendum question about whether Waterville would join nearly 20 other Maine municipalities in banning or charging a fee for plastic shopping bags. The bag ban was on the Nov. 6 ballot along with municipal, state and congressional elections.

To Isgro, however, it was far more dire: He alleged in August that “special interest groups, lobbyists, and influence-peddlers” were behind the proposed ban, and that these nefarious forces “want Waterville as just another notch in their belt.”

After the election, Isgro had more to tweet about. Concerned about college students voting in the local election — as is their right, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed — several of the mayor’s supporters questioned whether students were properly registered, and challenged some 164 absentee ballots. With those ballots excluded, the result on the bag ban was reversed — from a close, but affirmative vote reported on election night, to the measure losing by seven votes.

Two days after the election, Isgro contended that those questioning the challenges “are lobbying Our City to retroactively change the voter rolls in order to conceal mysterious voter registrations that illegally list P.O. boxes for a physical address.”

Many of the words Isgro used are wide of the facts, and his implication that something fraudulent is going on is offensive. Nevertheless, it turns out the mayor has a point.

For many years, and not just in this election, registrations from Colby College, including some faculty members, have lacked the “physical” address required by state law. Patti Dubois, the city clerk, said this week that she first became aware of the problem the Friday before the election when the ballots were challenged, and went to work to resolve it.

On the Tuesday of the election, she set up a special line at the central polling place after flagging deficient registration cards so students voting in person could amend their registrations. But it was too late to do the same for those who had voted absentee; thus the 164 challenged ballots.

How is it, then, that so many students lacked the required address on their voting cards? To determine that, we have to go back a few years.

At one time, Colby College’s mail system included dorm room numbers, which provided an actual physical location. This was inconvenient for the college; students move from dorm to dorm yearly, and keeping track of them took time and effort.

The college went to a box system — not a “P.O. Box” but simply the central mailroom at Cotter Union. No one seemed to have thought of what this might mean for students registered to vote, nor did anyone notice — until this year’s election.

There’s no real question that the students were eligible to vote, but it’s also clear their paperwork was not in the proper form.

Can the registration cards be retrospectively fixed? Or do the Colby students find, as so many other voters have discovered, nationwide, that they are out of luck, through no fault of their own?

The answers to those questions may now be answered by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, after the city’s attorney, William Lee, petitioned for review.

If you think a Supreme Court review of a municipal election referendum is unusual, you would be right. There are quirks in state law that lead down this surprising path, Lee said in an interview.

Lee, who’s also attorney for Winslow, reviewed filings in a contested town council race last year that resulted in an apparent tie. The incumbent councilor had disputed one ballot, and filed suit in Superior Court for a ruling — the normal procedure.

But when Lee reviewed the case, he found that discrepancies between the state and municipal portions of election law suggested that, in fact, the Supreme Court was the proper venue — and the Superior Court judge agreed. Thus Maine’s highest court decided the case, ruling that the intent of the voter on the disputed ballot couldn’t be determined, so the councilor kept his seat by one vote.

Now, the high court will be presented with a far more complicated question which, too, has apparently never been litigated before — involving not one ballot, but 164. If students registered in good faith, and municipal election officials approved their registrations, can the address provisions be rectified for the recent election, or not? And who are the parties to the case?

Laws appear to be fixed on the statute books, but their meaning and intent is often hard to determine, and we rely on judges and courts to provide answers. How much weight does the letter of the law carry, against the fundamental principle of a democracy: the right to be heard, and to vote?

The case promises to be a most interesting one. And the high court’s decision will mark another milestone on the long and arduous journey begun at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, more than 230 years ago.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years. He is the author of “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” and welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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