WATERVILLE — The two sides involved in a dispute before the Maine State Supreme Court involving challenged election ballots cast by Colby College students and a controversial referendum banning plastic shopping bags have filed initial arguments with the court, though a decision is still likely weeks away.

The case, which is only the second instance of a municipal election in Maine being sent to the Supreme Court, will decide whether Waterville implements a ban on plastic shopping bags at retail stores of 10,000 square feet or more.

But it could also have implications for how questions of voter registrations and challenged ballots are handled going forward.

“It really comes down to the right of college students who live here in Waterville to vote in local municipal elections,” said Todd Martin, a member of the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition, which was behind the referendum banning plastic shopping bags. “The results of the court case will certainly impact whether we ban bags at big-box stores, but the case isn’t really looking into the merits of the bag issue. It’s looking into the merits of did the students vote the right way and are they actually residents of Waterville.”

Meanwhile, paperwork filed with the court Monday by the group that originally challenged the Colby student ballots raises questions about who is behind that effort.

The paperwork lists Waterville residents Cathy Weeks, Shaun Caron “and others” as bringing forth the argument that City Clerk and Registrar Patti Dubois failed to collect satisfactory proof of address from students during the registration process and the ballots, including those whose registrations were corrected, should not be allowed to count.

Weeks, when contacted Tuesday, said she was not involved in filing the paper, although her name is on it, and did not have a comment. Attorney Colton Gross of the firm Irwin & Morris is the attorney who filed on behalf of the challengers and did not immediately respond to an email late Tuesday.

Caron did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

The two, along with Jonathan Weeks, were the three residents who originally challenged 161 absentee ballots cast by Colby College students in the November election on grounds they did not register properly to vote.

The challenged ballots were later set aside for the court to determine their validity during a recount initiated by Mayor Nick Isgro, who was opposed to the bag ban and cited the challenged ballots as grounds to re-examine the referendum. The recount did change the outcome of the vote and resulted in a defeat of the bag ban 2,918-2,911, not counting the challenged ballots.

Oakland resident Mark Andre, who ran for state representative in House District 110, which includes part of Waterville, was also involved in the effort to challenge ballots but was not an official challenger because he is not a resident of Waterville.

Andre said Tuesday he has been assisting the attorney in understanding the history of the case and why the ballots were challenged, but it was his understanding he could not be part of the filing because he is not a Waterville resident.

He would not comment when asked if he knows who is paying the attorney.

Isgro did not respond immediately to a phone call seeking comment Tuesday, the same day he also called for the city to stop allowing the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition to use office space in City Hall.

The issue has pitted the mayor against the coalition and Colby students who have said the questions around the election outcome are an effort to disenfranchise students.

“This matter arises out of a cynical and bad faith attempt by a handful of city residents, in coordination with the city’s mayor, to disenfranchise Colby students and faculty,” wrote Russell Pierce and David Goldman, attorneys for Colby students Lily Herrmann, Riter Hoopes, Jacob Nash and Tyler Veilleux, in a paper filed with the court stating their position on the issue. Herrmann is also chairwoman of the Waterville Democratic Party.

Pierce and Goldman said the case could set up a precedent whereby votes could be challenged on the “flimsiest premise” and thrown out.

The Sustain Mid-Maine coalition also is working with Pierce and Goldman, Martin said. He said the group did not see the need to file separate paperwork with the court and they are confident “the court will see things our way and we will win.”

The argument set forth by the students also lays blame on the registrar of voters, Patti Dubois, saying she instructed students to use their mailbox addresses rather than physical addresses on voter registration cards.

It also says Dubois immediately should have thrown out the challenges of the 161 Colby ballots because “there was no legitimate doubt raised” as to whether the students did not live in the city.

Finally, the students also argued Dubois immediately should have certified the ballots of 77 students who came to City Hall to verify their residency and correct their voter registrations following the election.

But Dubois and City Attorney William A. Lee III said two of those issues were not within her rights to do. They said the challenges were valid and Dubois does not have the right to certify ballots after the students came to correct their information — only the Supreme Court can do that.

In the past, Dubois also said students have voted using their mailing addresses and the issue only came up this year because of the opening of a new dormitory that is in a different legislative district from the main campus.

As of October, about 2.5 percent of Colby students lived off campus, and Lee said Dubois was right to ask all students to come verify their addresses after the challenges were presented.

“For her to just assume, ‘Oh, the odds are 90 percent (they live in Waterville), that’s good enough,’ it’s not,” Lee said. “You have to be confident. What she did was absolutely correct and the prudent thing to do to make sure these students live in town.”

A paper filed on behalf of the college by attorney Jerrol Crouter also reiterated the point that in the past the city clerk has accepted mailbox addresses as valid on voter registrations and all of the challenged ballots should be counted.

Meanwhile, Gross, the attorney for the challengers, filed a paper saying Dubois failed to collect satisfactory proof of address from students during the registration process and the ballots, including those whose registrations were corrected, should not be allowed to count. “The court should also issue further guidance as to how the challenged (provisional) balloting procedure should be properly deployed in future Maine elections,” he wrote.

The issue is of broad interest to a number of people in that the bag ban will affect shoppers from throughout the region and the questions on voting could have long-term implications, Andre said.

“There are some very important voting issues that underly the case, and I hope over the course of the ruling these things come out,” he said. “I won’t predict how they’re going to rule on it, but there are some very important issues about Maine’s voting system and the security of it that hopefully will come out.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.