WINSLOW — The intent of a local voter who sloppily marked up an election ballot could decide the outcome of a still-unresolved race for Town Council.
A sitting town councilor has called into question a recent election recount that resulted in a tie with a challenger, and he is filing a lawsuit against the town seeking to have a single ballot invalidated.
During the regular election earlier this month, District 3 Councilor Jerry Quirion, 71, was declared the winner over challenger Lee Trahan, 46, a member of the School Board, by a margin of three votes. However, Trahan requested a recount, according to Town Manager Mike Heavener, which ultimately resulted in a 173-173 tie.
However, Quirion is contesting that result, targeting one ballot that would sway the election in his favor.
“It’s an odd one,” town attorney Bill Lee said in an interview Thursday of the local election. “From a probability standpoint, it’s not a likely occurrence.”
Quirion’s attorney, Ron Bourget of Augusta, said they will be filing a suit with the Kennebec County Superior Court against the town of Winslow, saying the questioned ballot shouldn’t have been counted at all and that, in the end, Quirion ended up with the most votes in the election — a one-vote margin of victory.
“We feel the vote is clearly invalid,” Bourget said.
There’s no question the contested ballot is sloppy. The person who filled out the ballot failed to follow directions and did not fill in any ovals next to candidates’ names, but rather made marks along the ballot’s dotted border.
In the council race, the voter appears to have made marks to the left side near both Quirion’s and Trahan’s names, although the mark for Trahan is a bit larger and nudges over a boxed border a tick away from the oval.
The voter made similar marks next to the uncontested candidates for School Committee, on the left, and a seat on the Kennebec Water District, on the right, while making no marks for two uncontested candidates running for library trustee in the middle of the ballot.
Attempts to reach Trahan for comment Thursday were not successful.
Either candidate was allowed the opportunity to file with the court because of the tie declared by the recount.
The recount was performed Nov. 17 by Town Clerk Pamela Smiley at the request of Trahan for the three-year seat. It was Winslow’s first recount since at least 2006, Smiley said.
The original ballots were counted by machine, but in the recount the 384 votes were counted by hand by Smiley and two other counters. In the initial vote, Quirion narrowly defeated Trahan by three votes. However, during the recount, it was discovered that two votes had not been picked up properly by the counting machine, both of which went to Trahan.
The final and deciding vote — the sloppy ballot with marks along the borders — was counted for Trahan, resulting in the tie. But Bourget contends that ballot is not marked clearly and should be tossed out.
“It is evident to us that the ballot is invalid,” Bourget said. “Jerry has more votes.”
In a news release issued Thursday, Bourget said he and Quirion are asking the court for “an expedited determination in this matter to cause all of the parties, and the Town and town’s people the least amount of delay and cost possible, but also that the election results can be properly determined and we can get it right.”
“The weight of each vote is important in an election based on the credibility of each and every ballot,” Bourget said.
Heavener, the town manager, on Thursday directed any specific questions to Lee, the town attorney.
Lee on Thursday said it was up to the town clerk to determine whether a ballot counts, and in this case Smiley made the determination that the ballot in question did count for Trahan. Despite the ballot’s awkward appearance, Lee noted the voter did not mark the square exactly parallel to Quirion’s name, but rather did mark a box parallel to Trahan’s name and a second box in between the two names.
Lee said Quirion probably will argue to the court that there is a mark “next” to his name as well.
Meanwhile, the Winslow Town Council has been scheduled to vote on calling a special election in order to determine a winner in the race. The council would need to hold two readings of such an order — scheduled for its meetings on Dec. 11 and Jan. 2 — for a special election to be called.
At that point, the town would need to wait at least 30 days to hold the election. Quirion was set to remain in his council seat until the second election was complete, at which time the newly elected candidate would be sworn in.
Bourget, who was speaking Thursday for Quirion, said the councilor will continue to serve in his capacity as an elected official and “faithfully serve the town Winslow until this is corrected by the court one way or the other.”
He stressed that under Maine law, a ballot is invalid if there is no sufficient evidence to determine the voter’s choice.
“He’s a very conscientious councilor, so he made it clear to me that he feels very strongly that this is not a countable ballot,” Bourget said. “He wants to proceed in most direct, least invasive manner he can to get the vote counted correctly and not have it affect the council business. He takes that very seriously.”
Contested ballot in Winslow’s city council election.