In an extraordinary outcome, a Tisbury town referendum on whether town restaurants should be allowed to sell beer and wine with meals ended in a tie vote this week, 690 in favor and 690 against.
Following the annual town election Tuesday, which saw a record turnout, supporters of beer and wine sales have called for a recount of the votes, citing the possibility that improperly marked ballots wound up in the count.
The machine count recorded 21 blank ballots.
It is possible that on a manual recount, votes which the machine could not read may be identified as valid.
Adding to the uncertainty, a small number of pre-marked ballots which had been used to test the voting machine before Tuesday’s vote were accidentally distributed to voters.
The vote, which was to have resolved almost three years of controversy over the move to end Tisbury’s status as a dry town, was extraordinary in several ways — it brought the largest ever turnout for a town election, the first tied result in memory, and the first possibility of an inaccurate tally due to pre-marked ballots.
A total of 1,401 voters, just over 51 per cent of those registered, turned out for the election.
“By way of comparison, we would get 800 to 900 out for a normal contested selectman’s election,” Tisbury town clerk Marion Mudge said.
The election was the talk of the Island throughout the week.
The controversy will extend for at least another 10 days pending the recount. If the result remains tied after that, the status quo will remain, and restaurant alcohol sales will not be allowed.
And beer and wine may not be the only contested result from Tuesday’s vote. Thomas Pachico said he expects to contest the selectman’s election which he lost by just 14 votes — 679 to 669 — to challenger Jeff Kristal. Here again, the pre-marked ballots could be a factor; the machine count recorded 48 blanks.
The seasoned Tisbury town clerk took full responsibility for the matter this week, which may well have been the most hectic and pressured in her own 24-year career. Ms. Mudge said the pre-marked ballots were handed out during heavy voting around mid-afternoon on Tuesday.
“Because the turnout was so large, we were running out of papers,” she said on Wednesday. One of the polling workers went looking for some more.
“I had stuck these marked ballots, which we had earlier used to test the machine, on top of a suitcase, and the poll worker then picked them up and started handing them out.
“It was my mistake. I should have put them in the suitcase, but guess I was a little hurried yesterday.”
Ms. Mudge said the pre-marked ballots were “marked all different ways” by what she called the automark machine.
She said the error was realized almost immediately when three voters brought it to the attention of the polling staff.
“One person didn’t notice it until she was back in the booth. One person noticed it immediately — she never left the table, and told us there were marks on it.
“One gentleman came to me and said he had marks on his ballot, but had used it anyway, because the marks corresponded with the way he intended to vote,” Ms. Mudge said.
“And I knew exactly what had happened as soon as I looked at the marks. You can tell if it has been hand-done or done by the machine.
“So we took the marked ballots and moved them to the side, and gave everybody that had a marked ballot a new one,” she said.
After that, staff asked everyone who deposited a ballot if it had been marked when they got it, until they were sure everyone who had been in the room at the time the mistake occurred had voted and left.
Ms. Mudge said as far as she knew, the only marked ballot used was that of the man who intended to vote that way.
“There were 10 ballots that I ran through the automark. I’m sure we got all of them back,” she said.
She said the only contest that could possibly have been affected was the beer and wine vote.
“The argument I believe that the yes side is going to make is that the test ballot was only marked on the question side. What if somebody took the ballot, marked the people, forgot to mark the questions, so didn’t turn it over and see that it was already marked and accidentally cast a ballot,” she said.
In all the other ballot questions and election choices, the margins were sufficiently wide that it could not change the outcome, she said.
A group that supported beer and wine sales formally petitioned for a recount on Wednesday. The deadline to register appeals is April 25 and nothing more will happen until then.
When the recount does take place, six people will be appointed to recount the votes and their count will be scrutinized by six people from each side.
As for the contested selectman’s election, Mr. Pachico said on Wednesday he was likely to seek a recount.
“I probably will,” he said. “I think I owe it to my supporters.”
Whatever the final outcome, he said, he wanted to record his appreciation of all those who had backed him over his past nine years as a selectman.
Tristan Israel, who served with Mr. Pachico throughout that time, and who beat off a challenge from Mr. Kristal last year, said he could not recall such a close race.
“I would like to congratulate Mr Kristal,” he said, “and thank Tom for all he did over the years.
“I hope he will remain involved in the town. His heart was always in the right place.”