SKOWHEGAN – After nearly eight hours Tuesday counting 14,000 ballots and then recounting some of those already tallied, officials affirmed the Nov. 8 vote that narrowly approved the construction of a new jail in Somerset County.
With only 28 votes tipping the scales in favor of the $30 million bond package, county Republicans, led by Skowhegan attorney John Youney, petitioned county commissioners for a recount, which was held Tuesday at the Skowhegan Community Center.
Twelve teams of three people – two counters and a monitor – some from as far away as Bar Harbor, labored over the ballots, which had been held by the Maine State Police since the petition was submitted.
In the end, the vote was surprisingly similar to what individual town clerks had reported on Nov. 8 and 9. The final tally Tuesday was 7,139 in favor and 7,109 opposed – a difference of 30 votes. The final count was just 18 votes off from the count of three weeks ago and the process revealed only six disputed ballots.
“I have nothing but the greatest respect for those town clerks who were reporting such accurate numbers at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Commission Chairman Paul Hatch said.
Youney, in conceding defeat, said the recount validated the democratic process. “This is what reinforces the public’s respect of the voting system,” he said. “I’m satisfied.”
The daylong process began with the delivery of the padlocked metal boxes that contained the ballots from each of the 33 Somerset County towns. The boxes arrived late so the counting teams didn’t get down to business until about 10:30 a.m.
Once the counters familiarized themselves with the process, they completed the recount of all county town ballots by 3 p.m. – not the 9 p.m. that had been estimated. Then began the tedious process of counting each package of opened but unused ballots from each town and making sure the tally of voters from the town’s voting list matched the number of ballots cast.
Somerset County District Attorney Evert Fowle, county attorneys Dale Thistle and Warren Shay, Youney and his assistant, Kim Pettingill of Albion, oversaw the process.
Pettingill said the counters were finding that town clerks had wrapped and processed everything correctly, but that small issues held things up. For example, in Pittsfield, a local voting issue ballot was the same color as the county ballot. “We had to count all of them to make sure none were mixed in with each other,” said Pettingill.
Another problem involved the Skowhegan counting machine, which had kicked out 14 ballots that were not originally counted. Those had to be individually reviewed and tallied.
At the last moment, Youney asked that six bundles of 50 ballots each be recounted one more time to validate the numbers. Just before 6 p.m., the recount was completed.
The process was so ambiguous, however, that Hatch will lobby for a change in the state law. The recount was the first ever of a county bond referendum in the state, Hatch said, and the law was vague. “I want to see situations such as this handled by the state,” Hatch said.
After the final tally, the three county commissioners were all smiles as they shook the hands of some of the counters. Had the referendum failed, Hatch said the existing jail would have had to close down while at least $8 million worth of upgrades were performed to bring it up to state standards. The upgrades would have taken at least a year, and the county’s inmates would have been boarded elsewhere at a cost of more than $2 million.
“That would mean we would have spent $10 million and still had a 100-year-old jail that could only house 35 inmates,” Hatch said. “We still would have been boarding another 40 a day elsewhere at $110 a day each, not including transportation.”
“It is not economically feasible to spend $10 million for 35 prisoners,” said Commissioner Robert Dunphy.
Hatch was ready to begin the jail construction immediately. “We are going to start just as fast as we can,” he said late Tuesday. Buying the land on which the county holds an option and hiring a clerk of the works and an architectural firm are the first steps. “We also need to get moving on the bonding,” Hatch said.
The new jail will hold 173 inmates, enough room for the county to earn revenue boarding inmates from other counties and the federal system. It is expected to be ready for occupancy in 2007.