AUGUSTA (AP) —With 20,000 ballots from Scarborough and South Portland counted, neither side gained votes Thursday in the first day of a rare statewide recount on the outcome of the Oxford casino referendum.
The well-orchestrated process got under way in the building that houses state police headquarters after Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn outlined the technicalities of state law regulating ballots and recounts.
What could become an arduous effort was being carried out at a U-shaped arrangement of tables, broken into 10 ballot-reviewing teams of "yes" and "no" representatives, and a state election official.
The recount was requested by casino foes after voters on Nov. 2 approved the statewide ballot question by 4,601 votes. Unofficial tallies put the margin at less than 1 percent of more than 564,000 votes cast statewide.
State officials decided not to bring in all of the ballots at once. Instead, they will work in phases, with South Portland and Scarborough ballots checked first. Flynn said those communities were chosen because the state already had their ballots from an earlier recount in a state Senate race.
Statewide recounts are "fairly rare" in Maine, said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, adding that the last one was held in the 1990s. The cost of the recount that began Thursday will depend on how long it takes, which could be weeks.
"In a recount, what you really seem to find are less sweeping changes ... typically small, clerical errors," said Dunlap.
State law is specific about what causes a vote to be counted in or out, said Flynn.
In 1995, Maine voters approved a law requiring all motorists to use seat belts or face fines. The United Bikers of Maine requested a recount. But the motorcyclists' group threw in the towel after nearly 12 percent of the ballots were counted again.
Prior to that, a recount was conducted in 1970 that upheld the election of Gov. Kenneth Curtis and a recount in 1966 confirmed the voters' decision to retain restrictions on Sunday sales.
Officials with Black Bear Entertainment, which wants to build a $165 million complex with slot machines and table games, are hoping the outcome of the recount will be obvious in the early stages.
"We think after the first five towns are done, which will be the first five days, that we'll have a very good indication of where this is going. And we hope that if nothing is changed, that the 'no' side will understand the trend here," said Daniel Walker, attorney for the pro-casino side.
"If they decide to go another five days with the next five towns, it will bring us up to one-fifth of the state within 10 days. At that point, if there hasn't been any significant shifts, we'd expect that that would be sufficient for this process," Walker said.
Dennis Bailey, a leader of casino opponents, acknowledged the difficulty of getting volunteers for his side to recount ballots given the unpredictable length of the process.
One of his side's volunteers was out sick, slowing down the count so that each side had nine counters. He said he expected a full 10 counters to show up on Friday.
"It's real tough to get people to commit to something we don't know how long will last," Bailey said. He also stopped short of predicting how the recount would turn out.
"I would say the odds of reversing are better than the odds at their casino," he said.