ELLSWORTH — As the state’s first general election ranked choice voting count (RCV) got underway last week, the campaign of U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) raised concerns about the security of ballot boxes and a clerk reportedly tabulating absentee ballots illegally.
Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap pushed back, assuring voters that the boxes were sealed and chastising the campaign for raising concerns in the media rather than coming to his office.
In posts on the campaign’s Facebook page and in an email, Poliquin campaign spokesman Brendan Conley said some of the ballot boxes that arrived in Augusta were missing locks.
“There is also a report of a clerk at the Bangor polling station who was tabulating absentee ballots on her own and without any election monitoring,” said Conley, “which is illegal.”
In a tweet on Saturday, the Secretary of State’s Office wrote that even if the locks aren’t all in place, the serialized seals, which must be broken with a wire cutter, are.
“If you take a close look at each box, you’ll see that the seals are in place. These cannot be replaced once broken, so every ballot box is still secure even if the clerk forgets to put the lock in place as directed. There is no way this box could be opened and resealed.”
“We did have a few clerks forget to put the padlock on,” said Maine Secretary of State’s Office spokeswoman Kristen Muszynski, “but the seal is a more important component.”
The seals are plastic with a piece of hooked wire “that you’d have to use a wire cutter” to get off, she added.
“We want to assure the public that we have not received any unsealed ballot boxes,” Muszynski said. “We have no concerns with tampering or anything of that effect.”
“Our concern is always voter confidence,” Muszynski said.
In another tweet, the Secretary of State’s Office reiterated the message.
“Rest assured, all ballot boxes containing actual ballots are not only locked but also have a serialized seal that cannot be reconnected. The chain of custody for Mainers’ ballots is very strict and anyone involved in the transport process must sign off on it.”
Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said in an email that “We do not have evidence of vote tampering. We are not making an accusation of vote tampering.”
“What we have said is that without the property chain of custody and ballot security, it is possible,” said Savage, adding that the concerns stem in part from the missing padlocks. Savage called for the RCV law to be amended to have Maine State Police transport the ballots.
Savage said, “We had numerous reports about potential problems with handling of ballots during the day on Election Day,” and that he had “personally visited the Bangor polling place to make sure the boxes of ballots being stored due to a machine failure were secure.”
Asked whether the Poliquin campaign had concerns about ballots before heading into RCV or if the campaign planned to file a complaint with the Secretary of State’s Office, Conley referred questions to Savage.
Savage said the party would let candidates file official complaints. Conley did not respond to a follow-up email asking whether the campaign planned to do so. Any resident can file a complaint with the Secretary of State’s Office, said Muszynski, who added that the office had received no correspondence from the Poliquin campaign.
“The only correspondence has been to the press and not to our office,” Muszynski said.
“I’m pretty sure that the Maine Republican Party has our phone number and if they have questions, they can call us and ask us,” Dunlap told the Portland Press Herald on Monday. “Instead, they are communicating through the media. I think it’s intended to be a distraction; it’s intended to cast doubt on this process. And I think it’s irresponsible and a disservice to the people of Maine.”
Savage said he had called Dunlap’s office with complaints about the clerk in Bangor on election night before polls closed but that he had not sent the office a video he reportedly took of the worker “because of low phone battery and connectivity.”
Savage said he had not received any follow-up communication from Dunlap’s office. Muszynski said the office had not received the video as of Monday at 1, nearly a week after the election.
Asked to send a copy to The Ellsworth American, Savage said he was considering releasing the video on Monday.
“We are trying to work through a number of things,” he said.
On Monday, Savage also called on Dunlap to reassign a ballot counter involved in tabulating RCV ballots because the staffer had “liked” tweets favoring Poliquin’s Democratic challenger, Jared Golden.
“Highly partisan staff should not be handling ballots in this process. It’s simple,” Savage said in a press release. “Someone who cheers for Jared Golden to be Maine’s next congressman cannot be put forward as an impartial participant.”
Muszynski said Dunlap “doesn’t hire people based on party.”
The staff member, Andrew Roth-Wells, “has a right to freedom of speech,” said Muszynski. “He did not make any statements to the effect of affecting the election in any way. We don’t expect it’s going to have an effect on his work here.”
Poliquin led Golden by around 2,000 votes heading into the RCV count, according to unofficial results. Both candidates had around 46 percent of the vote, shy of the 50 percent required to claim victory under RCV rules.
Over the weekend, staff in the Secretary of State’s Office began counting the second choices on ballots cast for independent candidates Tiffany Bond of Portland and William Hoar of Southwest Harbor, who received a total of around 24,000 votes. Second-choice votes cast for Poliquin and Golden on those ballots will be added to the counts of the two frontrunners to determine a winner.
Around 182 small towns remained to be scanned in as of Monday afternoon, said Muszynski. Results were expected by the end of the week.
This is the first general election test of RCV, which Mainers approved for use in 2016. The 2nd Congressional District race is the only one in which RCV will be used this year, as one candidate in the races for U.S. Senate and Congressional District 1 received 50 percent plus one vote, the amount required to avoid an RCV instant-runoff.
Maine is the first state in the country to implement RCV, although several cities, including Cambridge, Mass., San Francisco, Calif., and St. Paul, Minn., use the system, as do Australia and Ireland.