A Maine Political Conspiracy Theory Unravels
Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster is working hard to sow doubt about Maine's election system and convince Mainers that his political opponents have engaged in coordinated election fraud. His campaign is in large part an attempt to derail a People's Veto effort launched to protect Election Day voter registration in Maine (a cause I support both personally and professionally).
While Webster has had some success in injecting his sensationalistic accusations into the public debate despite a complete lack of evidence, things now seem to have unraveled for the veteran political operator. In a series of public statements and press releases, culminating in a particularly strange one sent yesterday, Webster has dramatically changed his story several times on what kind of voter fraud or voter suppression, if any, has actually occurred in Maine.
The narrative of Webster's claims is long and complicated. Perhaps now is a good time to look back and put his statements into an understandable order.
Webster first raised the issue of widespread voter fraud when LD 1376, the bill that eliminated voter registration on Election Day and for four days beforehand, was making its way through the Legislature. At the time, Secretary of State Charlie Summers, the author of the bill and until recently Vice Chair of the Republican Party under Webster, said the legislation had "nothing to do with voter fraud."
That didn't dissuade Webster from spinning a strange tale to Portland Press Herald Columnist Bill Nemitz about why he felt the bill was necessary.
"Buses. They bring them in in buses," said Webster. "Job Corps people -- they move 'em around to wherever they have a tough seat and they want to win an election."
The law passed by the slightest of margins along a party line vote and, immediately upon being signed by the governor, was challenged by a coalition of groups that sought to launch a People's Veto. Webster crashed the launch event and used the opportunity to double down on his claims, saying that the kind of election fraud he described had happened in Bangor and in other places and that people he had talked to had witnessed the buses. He again refused to provide even a scrap of proof for his allegations.
When Bangor Daily News reporter Kevin Miller asked him where the evidence was, he explained that it was likely covered up by corrupt Democratic Secretaries of State and Attorneys General.
Perhaps sensing that he better put up or shut up, Webster's next move was to call a press conference and send out a release in which he announced (in all-caps) "TODAY I WILL BE HAND DELIVERING THE NAMES OF 206 INDIVIDUALS THAT MAY HAVE COMMITTED VOTER FRAUD HERE IN MAINE."
Instead what he presented were the names of 206 students in the University of Maine System that were paying out-of-state tuition and had registered to vote in Maine, something that's 100% legal. Residency requirements for in-state tuition are very different than for voting. If a student lives in Maine nine months of the year and considers their college town their place of residence, regardless of where they lived before they started school, then of course they can vote there.
Webster made some more noises about foreigners voting illegally or people voting more than once in the same election but, again, provided no actual evidence.
This press conference and the one that followed from Secretary Summers, where he made a public show of accepting Webster's list and also refused to provide any evidence of fraud, have been the high point of Webster's campaign so far. He garnered scores of uncritical headlines from incurious reporters and succeeded in creating unreasoned fear about Maine's elections.
As Steve Mistler at the Lewiston Sun Journal put it:
"It was still a blow to the veto coalition. By simply tossing out the words "fraud" and "voters," Summers and Webster had commanded the news cycle for a week.
It didn't matter that they didn't, or couldn't, connect those words to same-day voter registration. The absence of that key link is only important to those engaged in the debate, not those who scan a headline or overhear a newscast."
Webster also succeeded in distracting attention away from his original claims. Gone were his stories about buses full of Job Corps members illegally voting in swing races all over the state. Now the conspiracy had dwindled to a handful of college students who were probably acting completely within the law, and no one seemed to notice.
At this point, some of Webster's fellow Republicans began to turn against him. Activist and columnist Matt Gagnon called the fraud claims "self-righteous grandstanding" and wrote in the Bangor Daily News that "it isn't some kind of epidemic that is de-legitimizing the system, and the specific claims made by the GOP have little to do with same-day registration anyway." (He had similarly dismissive things to say about claims of voter suppression under the new law.)
Kevin Price, an outspoken Republican and a college student who had helped several students on Webster's list register to vote (as Republicans), wrote a blog post panning Webster's claims and bemoaning what he saw as misplaced priorities.
"Instead of attempting to provide coverage for what was a terrible piece of legislation and hinder the signature drive to place the issue on the ballot, he should focus on issues that will actually benefit Maine and help Republicans keep the majority," wrote Price.
Most of Maine's daily newspapers also editorialized against Webster's dog-and-pony show and in favor of election day registration.
Then, things got weirder.
Completely abandoning his first assertions that Democrats were illegally driving groups of people to the polls on election day, Webster bragged to Sun Journal editor Scott Thistle that he actually knew they hadn't, because he had taken the UMF student vans and hidden them.
"Guess what happened in 2010?" Webster said. "The buses didn't run on Election Day because we had the College Republicans reserve them early and on Election Day we took them over and parked them in the Walmart parking lot."
Based on Thistle's article, Maine's Majority, a left-leaning PAC, accused Webster of engaging in a conspiracy to suppress the turnout of legal voters, charges Webster denied.
Yesterday, however, saw the GOP chair's strangest move to date. That's when Webster sent out a news release and email blast accusing Democrats in Farmington of having done exactly what he just bragged about, except now he considered it a terrible assault on democracy.
"Information now indicates that Maine Democrats have intentionally disenfranchised Maine voters in an attempt to suppress voter turnout in the 2010 election cycle," reads the release. "UMF records show that UMF college Democrat activists, reserved a university van for the purpose of driving potential voters to the polls, and then simply parked the van."
The tone of the release (not to mention its hypocrisy) is so over the top that posters on the conservative As Maine Goes message board assumed that it had to be some kind of Democratic trick. "Fake Press Release Attributed To Maine GOP?" reads the headline on the site.
In addition to being incredibly strange, the release is also wrong, apparently. According to partial records that have been obtained by Maine's Majority through a Freedom of Access request, only two vans were signed out from UMF on Election Day in 2010. One was used by the hockey club and one by the Girls Talk - Teen Voices Program. According to the document, no political party used any vans that day.
Hopefully that's the end of this strange van-hiding saga, but I wouldn't be surprised if Webster leads us a bit further down the rabbit hole before it's over.
As for the larger question of voter fraud, I imagine we'll be hearing more about it now that a People's Veto seems likely to go forward, either from Webster or his allies.
With hundreds of thousands of Mainers voting every year and the full resources of the Republican Party and the offices of the Secretary of State, I'd be very surprised if they don't find one or more examples somewhere over the past decade of someone, through malice or mistake, voting twice or failing to properly register. When that happens (which the cynic in me believes will be before Mainers go to vote on protecting Election Day registration), I'm sure we'll see another attempt to maximize public attention and fear about our system of elections.
It will be up to Maine journalists to analyze the claims, report on them objectively, and compare them to the original conspiracy theories that Webster once spun. They should also make it abundantly clear what, if anything, they have to do with Election Day registration (the accusations made by Webster so far have almost nothing to do with the actual policy being discussed).
People like Webster engage in this kind of fear-based, fact-less sensationalism because it works and will continue to do so as long as it continues to work. The media should be our bulwark against this practice, not its enabler.