AUGUSTA — More than 30 witnesses will travel to the State House on Tuesday to testify in a special Senate committee’s investigation into the disputed Falmouth-area state Senate election that Democrats argue is still undecided.
By day’s end Tuesday, the committee intends to rely on that testimony to compile a timeline that starts with the delivery of blank ballots to the community of Long Island and goes through every instance in which those ballots have been handled since Election Day, Nov. 4.
Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta and Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill of Cape Neddick, who lead the seven-person Senate Electoral Committee, both acknowledged Monday that the prospect of completing the investigation on Tuesday may be a tall order given the number of witnesses — some of them residents of Long Island — for whom an impending winter storm might cause complications.
“We’re in uncharted waters here. We’re trying to see if we can re-create the events of that day and understand what one would have actually seen had one actually been there,” said Katz, who was appointed by Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, to lead the committee. “Our goal is to complete this in a long day, but the most important thing is that we get it right.”
At issue is the Senate District 25 election for the seat that represents the towns of Chebeague Island, Cumberland, Falmouth, Gray, Long Island, Yarmouth and part of Westbrook. After initial, unofficial counting of the ballots after Election Day, Democrat Catherine Breen appeared to have won by 32 votes. After a recount of the ballots, the result was reversed to show Republican Cathy Manchester with an 11-vote victory.
Senate Republicans voted last week to seat Manchester provisionally until the matter is resolved.
Maine law requires that the full Senate vote on the outcome of contested Senate district election recounts. With a 21-14 majority in the Senate, counting Manchester, Republicans have the votes to lift the “provisional” title from Manchester’s position. But Katz has said it’s important that the election committee, made up of three Democrats and four Republicans, acts in a way that preserves the integrity of the state’s election system and thoroughly addresses concerns about any impropriety in how the District 25 ballots were handled and counted.
Republican senators have said repeatedly that they want a quick resolution, though Democrats are pushing for a comprehensive investigation. Among the issues they have identified are 10 missing ballots from the towns of Cumberland and Westbrook; nine disputed ballots on which voter intent was not clear during the recount; three machine-counted ballots from Gray that switched from Breen to Manchester; and 21 “phantom” ballots from Long Island, which caused a discrepancy between the number of Long Island ballots tallied at the Nov. 18 recount and the number on that town’s election night voter manifest.
Hill said that though the Senate committee has the power to subpoena witnesses, doing so hasn’t been necessary because everyone who has been requested to testify has agreed to do so voluntarily.
“We didn’t want to go to subpoena powers now because we didn’t want to intimidate people,” said Hill. “I would hope that everyone, especially those involved in the election and the recount, would want to come forth to describe to us the timeline and who handled the ballots. … There’s a lot of questions that I think we just have to be very methodical about asking.”
Tuesday’s meeting at the State House, which was moved late Monday from the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee room to the Legislative Council Chambers, Room 334, will be streamed live and is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. with statements from Breen and Manchester, or their legal representatives. Also on the witness list are everyone who was involved in the election on Long Island, everyone involved in the recount, and Maine State Police officers who have been responsible for the ballots’ transport and security.
Hill said it’s possible, and maybe probable, that the committee will inspect the Long Island ballots one by one.
“I don’t think 21 ballots for the same person just show up,” said Hill. “There has to be a reason, and we have to get to the bottom of that. … Obviously, if those ballots are false or not true, there is a path to victory for Catherine Breen.”