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The Big Lie Characters Behind Maine Republican Lawmaker‘s Push For Arizona-Style Election Audit

Willis Ryder-Arnold / Maine Public

In this week’s newsletter: A Republican state lawmaker pushes for Arizona-style audit of 2020 Maine election, including turning over voter data to its cast of Big Lie characters; Republican Bruce Poliquin eyes a rematch with Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden; Maine’s projected windfall from the infrastructure bill.

On the final day of the Maine Legislature’s first session, Republican Rep. Heidi Sampson asked the clerk of the House of Representatives to distribute copies of an affidavit to her fellow state lawmakers.

The affidavit demanded a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election and ordered Secretary of State Shenna Bellows to gather all of the paper ballots, voting machines, software and related election materials for the use and inspection by “Col. Waldron and Jovan Hutton Pulitzer.”

The former is retired U.S. Army Col. Phil Waldron of Allied Security Operations Group, a firm that has been widely criticized by election officials, including the former Homeland Security cybersecurity chief under President Donald Trump, for false claims of voting irregularities in states that tilted the 2020 election to President Joe Biden. Pulitzer was once an inventor of dubious distinction — his CueCat, a feline-shaped scanning device, was once declared one of the worst inventions of all time by Time Magazine, emblematic of the reckless tech investment in the late 90s.

Pulitzer and Waldron are probably not well known to many Maine residents, but both are among a sprawling cast associated with the so-called Big Lie, a convergence of continually evolving conspiracy theories that assert, without evidence, that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Waldron’s claims have been widely debunked. Last year Pulitzer was labeled a “failed treasure hunter” by Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger after he falsely claimed during a December post-election hearing that he could hack the state’s voting system (Raffensperger was referencing Pulitzer’s recent adventures as a treasure hunter who set out to find the biblical Ark of the Covenant).

The affidavit that Sampson asked to have distributed to members of the Maine House specifically called for turning over Maine voter and election data to Pulitzer and Waldron. Last week, the Alfred Republican encouraged the roughly 150 attendees of a far-right rally in Belfast to sign copies of it.

“They have been notified that this is a request from we the people,” she said, referring to her colleagues in the House. “We the people have to get engaged because our elected officials have forgotten why they’re there... They really need a civics lesson.”

The Bangor Daily News recently reported that there’s no legal mechanism to do what the affidavit demands. The paper also noted that Sampson’s concerns that voter turnout in 2020 might have exceeded 100% in several counties are easily allayed by a review of state and U.S. Census data showing that county-level voter turnout ranged from 66% in Aroostook County to 86% in Sagadahoc County.

In other words, no Maine county exceeded 100% turnout.

Nevertheless, disproving baseless voter and election fraud claims in Maine, or elsewhere, has not been a deterrent for those pushing for so-called forensic audits. The inspiration comes from the one taking place in Arizona, which is now in its sixth month and is overseen by a firm with no expertise in evaluating ballots, voter data or elections.

The firm, Cyber Ninjas, is owned by Trump supporter Doug Logan, who has already proclaimed that the election was stolen from the former president. His audit efforts are financially backed by Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne, who also financed the conspiracy film “Deep Rig,” which also baselessly asserts that Trump was robbed.

Waldron and Pulitzer, who are reportedly involved in the Arizona audit, appear in the film.

The Arizona effort has sometimes been portrayed as a clownish grifting enterprise. National TV crews have made derisive references to the real circus outside of Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, where the secretive ballot examination took place. The auditors' subsequent scans for bamboo-laced ballots to confirm a conspiracy theory that fraudulent votes from Asia were somehow dumped into pivotal Maricopa County drew widespread mockery.

But election experts haven’t found the Arizona audit particularly funny, especially after voter data was unsecurely hauled from Phoenix to a “lab” in Montana that turned out to be a cabin in the woods. Many see the effort as a dangerous continuation of the stolen-election fallacy that inspired Trump extremists to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Others worry how the perpetuation of the Big Lie is prompting Republican-controlled legislatures to pass not only new voting restrictions, but also procedures that make it easier for partisans to overturn election results.

“Those who had the courage to stand up to Trump, people like Brad Raffensperger, the Secretary of State of Georgia, those people have been pushed out, or pushed to the side, or censured by Republicans,” said University of California, Irvine School of Law professor Rick Hasen on CNN this week. “They’re being replaced by people and replaced by laws that are going to make it easier to subvert the will of the people if that’s what the political pressure puts on them to make them do.”

Maine has thus far not encountered those efforts. The Democratic-controlled Legislature actually expanded voting access this year.

However, the Belfast event illustrates how believers in the stolen election fallacy are being encouraged to soldier on and draft new recruits.

Rep. Sampson was widely criticized for participating in an event organized by Robert David Steele, who has a history of antisemitic statements and Holocaust denialism, and has called for jailing Jews insufficiently “loyal to the Republic.” He also apparently believes in the QAnon conspiracy theory and once proclaimed that NASA has constructed a child slave colony on Mars. (It hasn’t).

In a Facebook post, Sampson responded to the criticism by saying that the “fake news” was unfairly trying to link her to the beliefs of “one person in the room” -- Steele.

Steele wasn’t the only person who spoke at the event. It was emceed by former gynecologist Christiane Northrup, one of the country’s leading purveyors of anti-vaccine disinformation.

Richard Mack also spoke to attendees via Zoom. Mack is the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which asserts that sheriffs’ can override federal law. According to a 2016 report by the Center for Public Integrity, Mack was on the board of directors of the Oath Keepers, the militant group that the U.S. Department of Justice alleges to have plotted and helped execute the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Sampson might not share the beliefs of the other attendees, but she talked about the Belfast event as an organizing opportunity for “a freedom network” that would break down the silos of seemingly disparate groups to act as a unified group of activists.

“We’re gonna wake ’em up. We’re gonna be looking up. And then, we’re going to stand up and take action,” she said.

Poliquin gives it another go

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin announced this week that he'll attempt to regain his old 2nd District seat, potentially setting up a rematch of the 2018 contest against Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, speaks at a news conference, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.

Poliquin, 67, kicked off his campaign Wednesday much the same way he ended his reelection bid three years ago.

In an interview with Portland radio station WGAN, he portrayed Golden as a tool of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and insisted that he beat him three years ago, but was robbed of that victory because of Maine's ranked-choice voting law.

"Head-to-head, you know, I beat Golden in 2018, and God willing, I will do it again next year," he told Portland radio station WGAN. "Because I'll tell you, he just does not represent the values of our 2nd District."

Poliquin led Golden after the initial count in 2018, but lost during the ranked-choice runoff — the first federal race ever decided that way.

At the time, the 2018 contest was also the most expensive in Maine history, drawing a combined $23 million in candidate and political action committee spending by national groups.

A 2022 rematch between Poliquin, a former investment manager, and Golden, a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, could well eclipse that figure.

In announcing his bid — his sixth run for elected office in the past seven elections — Poliquin also signaled that his campaign will nationalize the contest. He recited a range of Republican talking points that blame Democrats for issues such as illegal immigration, inflation, the recent spike in COVID cases, gas prices and a worker shortage.

"Him (Golden) being in Congress enables people like Nancy Pelosi to be the Speaker. It is pushing us so far to the left," he said.

Poliquin took a similar approach during his 2018 reelection bid, but he found that making nationalized attacks stick to Golden isn’t easy.

And it’s still difficult. The National Republican Congressional Committee recently resorted to running TV ads blaming Golden for a browntail moth problem that has existed since at least 1897.

Golden has voted twice against Pelosi for Speaker and earlier this year drew widespread scorn from liberals when he was the only Democrat to vote against the American Rescue Plan. (The pandemic relief bill included the extended unemployment benefits that Poliquin is blaming for the worker shortage.)

Last year the Democrat backed off his support for Medicare of All, another target for the GOP. He has also steered well clear of the two boulders of kryptonite for Democrats in swing districts: defunding the police and anything that could be construed as a restriction on gun ownership.

Nevertheless, Poliquin is a tenacious campaigner. His first run for office was during the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary. He finished sixth in a seven-way race won by Paul LePage, who would go on to win in the general election. With former Gov. LePage’s blessing (some Republican lawmakers saw it as a directive), Poliquin was elected state treasurer by the GOP-controlled Legislature. He went on to use his post to elevate his profile, annoying Democrats and, sometimes, Republicans.

He was first elected to Congress in 2014 after Democrats drafted former state House Minority Leader Emily Cain as their nominee. Poliquin won convincingly in the general election and even more so in 2016, when he beat Cain in a rematch by nearly 10 percentage points. (He also won despite refusing to say whether he supported Republicans’ presidential nominee, Trump.)

Poliquin attempted to challenge the legality of Golden’s win in 2018 after he lost during the runoff. The legal effort did not prevail, but Poliquin would continue to frame the state’s new ranked-choice system as a mysterious black box of unknown algorithms. (Turns out that it’s just math.)

Poliquin’s loss also had the effect of galvanizing Republican opposition to ranked-choice voting.

LePage, who Poliquin could join atop the 2022 ticket next year, certified the result, but not before scrawling “stolen election” on the certificate.

Poliquin would first need to win the GOP primary, which so far includes state Sen. Trey Stewart, of Presque Isle, and state Rep. Michael Perkins, of Oakland.

Maine’s potential payout in infrastructure bill

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill is still making its way through Congress, but the White House is already sending state-level projections of another windfall in federal aid.

A fact sheet distributed by the Biden administration this week projected that Maine could receive $1.3 billion for federal-aid highway programs and $225 million for bridge replacement. The state could also receive $241 million over five years to improve public transportation options across the state.

The package also includes an estimated $7.5 billion to boost a national network of electric car charging stations -- a big priority of the Biden administration, which sees the U.S. in a race with China to grab a bigger share of the EV car market. Of that amount, Maine is projected to receive $19 million to help build out its EV car charging infrastructure.

The White House also projects $100 million for the state to help increase high-speed internet coverage across the state.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, both touted the investment earlier this week. At the time, it wasn’t clear what Maine might receive for the broadband initiative.

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Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.