House declares Scarsdale winner of disputed race

Says ‘minor missteps” by election officials didn’t affect outcome

DEMOCRAT MARGARET SCARSDALE of Pepperell is expected to be sworn in Wednesday as a state representative after a special House committee of two Democrats and one Republican upheld her seven-vote victory over Republican Andrew Shepherd of Townsend.

The special committee, in a decision that was filed with the House clerk after 5 p.m. on Tuesday and approved by the full House on a voice vote at 7:30 p.m., concluded that “minor missteps” and “irregularities” on the part of local election officials did not amount to fraud and did not affect the outcome of the race.

“Mr. Shepherd failed to provide any corroborating evidence to support his claims that the irregularities that occurred in Pepperell, Groton, Dunstable, and Lunenburg caused harm beyond pure speculation. He has not met his burden of proof in this matter,” said the report issued by the special committee.

Scarsdale is expected to be sworn into office on Wednesday by Gov. Maura Healey. The seat has been vacant for nearly a year after the Republican who previously held the seat, Sheila Harrington, took a job as clerk magistrate of Gardner District Court.

Shepherd congratulated Scarsdale and indicated he would not pursue any legal challenge. The special committee said its decision is final. “Any requests pending in judicial proceedings or actions taken by a judicial court are moot,” the committee said.

The special committee’s members, appointed after House Speaker Ron Mariano decided the election results needed to be reviewed, were Democratic Reps. Michael Day of Stoneham and Daniel Ryan of Boston and Republican House leader Brad Jones of Reading.

The committee held a hearing on the challenge by Shepherd on Friday and also heard testimony from Republican Rep. Lenny Mirra of Georgetown challenging his one-vote loss to Democrat Kristin Kassner of Hamilton. No action has been taken yet on the Mirra-Kassner race.

While the committee concluded in its Shepherd decision that no fraud occurred, it did raise concerns about the “minor missteps” by election officials that could have an impact on future elections if they occurred on a larger scale.

One problem cited by Shepherd was the separation of mailed-in ballots from their envelopes, which would prevent town officials from verifying the signature of the person casting the vote.

A host of other problems were cited. “The evidence presented to the special committee suggests that in one community there may have been instances where incorrect ballots were sent to qualified voters. In another community, it appears possible that 50 test ballots were inadvertently included during the recount with actual ballots cast. In another community, it appears uncast ballots were included in the blanks tally as a simple way of accounting for those uncast ballots,” the report said. “While these missteps had no impact on the integrity or the final outcome of the election, similar missteps in the future, if occurring on a larger scale, could affect future elections.”

A footnote in the report cited a court case which held that the results of an election could be overturned only when the “margin of conjecture is greater than that of victory.” The committee said Shepherd failed to meet that standard because “the conjecture offered includes no proof that the contested ballots separated from their envelopes were counted erroneously.” In other words, the election officials did not carry out the letter of the law but there was no proof their actions led to votes being counted inaccurately.

The committee report called for “continued close review of current regulations, training, policies, and practices of elections in the Commonwealth.”