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Recount Follies in Maine

Chris Roberts

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Marijuana legalization may soon have its very own version of the hanging chad—and, if things go poorly during the recount currently underway in Maine, its very own “Gore vs. Bush in Florida, circa 2000” situation to go along with it.

Maine appeared to have been one of the four states where voters approved adult-use marijuana legalization on Election Day. The victory for Question 1, which would legalize up to 2 and a half ounces of cannabis for adults 21 and over and set up a system of regulated and taxed retail sales, was easily the slimmest in the country—4,703 votes, or less than one percent of all votes cast, so slim that opponents could request a recount under state law.

That recount kicked off Monday, as election workers started to sort through the more than 750,000 ballots cast in the state. Counting all those votes could take more than a month and cost more than $500,000, according to the Portland Press-Herald. Already, some issues are arising.

Namely, voting is hard.

On one ballot, a voter intending to vote “yes” on Question 1 instead decided to doodle, “color[ing] in circles above “Yes” but didn’t fill in the oval,” the newspaper reported. On another ballot, the would-be voter drew in the “O” in the word “No,” but left the oval next to the “No” blank.

Recounts are rare in Maine, and require significant extra resources above and beyond finding people willing to re-count ballots by hand. The ballots themselves are under strict security, and Maine State Police are tasked with driving to some remote rural communities in order to collect even a few dozen votes in order for them to be re-counted by a combination of volunteers and elections workers in the state capital.

Collecting the votes from the more than 500 towns in the state will cost more than $350,000 alone, according to the newspaper.

Once all the paper is in one place, the recount works like this: volunteers from both sides of the issue and state workers from the Secretary of State are assigned to “counting teams.” Representatives from both the yes and the no campaigns count voters from a particular area. They count and compare their totals, and then record the final, agreed-upon result under supervision by the elections worker, according to the newspaper. And that is 21st-century democracy.

Legalization opponents say they’re committed to the recount but only to a point. If the recount doesn’t appear to be changing the margin of victory, they would not ask to see it all the way through, they told the newspaper. Maine has never had a state ballot initiative where every last vote was recounted, according to the paper.

Midway through the first day of counting on Monday, it wasn’t clear if the numbers had budged one way or the other, the newspaper reported. The recount started with the 37,602 votes cast in Portland, Maine, the state’s biggest city, where voters supported legalization by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
If legalization survives the recount, Question 1 will go into effect in January. If it does, Maine is likely to have its own problems with implementation, as Gov. Paul LePage is a staunch supporter of President-elect Donald Trump as well as a foe of marijuana, and cities and towns would be able to ban retail stores, which wouldn’t be allowed to open for at least a year.

If Question 1 goes down in defeat on account of spoiled or otherwise failed attempts at filling out a ballot, expect legalization supporters to try again, and to make the voting instructions as clear as they can possibly be.

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