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Maine eyes securing voter data from partisan activists pushing election misinformation

Shenna Bellows
Michael C. York
File photo of Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, speaking in Bangor during her campaign for U.S. Senate in 2014.

The 2020 presidential election ended more than a year ago, but efforts to undermine public confidence in the result by pro-Trump activists — and by Trump himself — continue.

Some are pushing for what they call “audits” and access to voter information to promote a conspiracy theory that the former president is the victim of a plot to deny him a second term.

At the same time, supporters of a new bill in Maine are proposing to tighten the chain of custody of ballots and voting equipment.

Disputes over who has access to counted ballots have been exceedingly rare in Maine.

The most recent was in a state senate race in 2014, when 21 ballots from the tiny town of Long Island were mistakenly counted twice on election night.

A more serious episode occurred nearly three decades ago when an aide to the then-Democratic House Speaker pled guilty to ballot tampering charges during a recount of two House races.

State Rep. Teresa Pierce, a Falmouth Democrat who has backed bills to expand voting access, says state and local election officials have a sterling record of running secure elections and protecting voter information.

"But there are moments where you don't want any misinterpretation about what's going on in the statute," she said. "And I think this just clarifies some language to make sure that that misinterpretation isn't there."

Pierce has crafted a bill that tightens ballot custody rules. It would require local clerks to seal counted ballots in tamper-proof containers and open them only at request of the secretary of state, governor, the legislature or a court.

It would also prohibit clerks from turning over voting machines or devices to anyone unless authorized by the secretary of state.

Pierce's says to her knowledge, a clerk in Maine has never surrendered voting machines to anyone but state officials.

But, she says, "Could we tighten it up? Could we make it a little stronger, just to make sure? I'm sure people in Colorado never thought anything would happen in Colorado, right?"

What happened in Colorado earlier this year is an outgrowth of the stolen-election conspiracy theory fomented by former President Trump and his supporters.

According to Colorado election officials, Tina Peters, a Mesa County election clerk, in May invited an unauthorized person to observe an annual update of the county's election equipment software.

Photos and video of the update, as well as passwords to the voting system, were later posted online by Ron Watkins, a central figure in promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory, whose adherents have glommed onto Trump's assertion that the election was stolen.

Facing probes by federal and state investigators, Peters would eventually go into hiding with the assistance of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, joining him at various forums that promote those stolen election claims.

Lindell's myriad unproven stolen election conspiracies have resulted in a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems, the company that manufactures the voting equipment breached in Colorado.

Jena Griswold
David Zalubowski
FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2020, file photo, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold speaks during a news conference about the the state's efforts to protect the process of casting a vote in the general election in downtown Denver. Griswold accused Mesa County's election Clerk Tina Peters of directing staff to turn off video surveillance of voting equipment before a May 25, 2021, software update. Griswold also says Peters allowed a non-employee into the elections office during the highly secure software update.

And the publication of passwords in that breach, says Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, has irreversibly compromised the system in that county.

"Today I have issued an election order to prohibit the use of these voting systems components in Mesa County," Griswold announced at press conference held in August. "This means that the voting equipment currently in Mesa County can no longer be used."

Here in Maine, elections officials say the system is secure.

"We have not had problems with chain of custody for ballots or equipment," Democratic Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said.

Nevertheless, Bellows says the Colorado controversy is a driving force behind the new bill to strengthen the chain of custody of ballots and limit access to voting machines.

She says Maine's paper ballot voting system is the gold standard in election security and that counting machines here are not connected to the internet, and therefore, cannot be hacked remotely.

But she also says that keeping the machines and ballots out of the hands of partisan activists is vital to instilling voter confidence in elections.

"You should rest assured that when you cast your ballot there's a strict chain of custody so that no one is coming and tapping you on the shoulder to ask you how you voted," she said. "Similarly, you should have confidence that the voting equipment and devices are not accessible by third parties who might have partisan or political motives, or other agendas."

Those third parties might include the pro-Trump group granted authority by the Republican State Senate in Arizona to conduct a so-called "audit" of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County.

While it eventually confirmed President Joe Biden's victory, it's inspired copycat efforts in other states, including Maine.

Over the summer, Republican state Rep. Heidi Sampson circulated an affidavit at a far-right rally demanding Secretary of State Bellows and other officials turn over Maine voter data and machines to people involved in the Arizona audit.

One of them is Jovan Pulitzer, the inventor of the now-defunct CueCat barcode reader, who last year claimed, falsely, that he could hack into Georgia's election system.

The other is Phillip Waldron, the retired military colonel who has made headlines recently because he circulated a proposal last year to the Trump White House to challenge certification of the 2020 presidential election, including declaring a national emergency and seizing ballots.

"It's notarized and it is admissible in court in a hearing. So, it's nothing to sneeze at," Sampson told rally attendees.

Bellows says the affidavits have no force of law, but are the kind of disinformation that damages public confidence in elections.

She also worries that these efforts are part of a scheme to garner money from people unhappy with the 2020 election results.

"One of my concerns is that it may be a money-making opportunity like it was in Arizona, where those in charge of that big lie were sending out fundraising emails and solicitations and making huge money off of a big lie," she said. "I hope that we don't see that here in Maine."

For now, Bellows says the chain-of-custody proposal before the Legislature next year is about keeping Maine voter data in the hands of local election officials and away from partisan activists.