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LePage revives Maine voters’ age-old enemy: people from Massachusetts

Newly inaugurated Maine Gov. Paul LePage, makes a point while delivering remarks after being sworn in Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 in Augusta, Maine.
Pat Wellenbach
AP file
Newly inaugurated Maine Gov. Paul LePage, makes a point while delivering remarks after being sworn in Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 in Augusta, Maine.

When former Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage recently made the unsubstantiated claim that voters from Massachusetts were bused into the state to vote in the 2009 same-sex marriage referendum, he used a well-worn voter fraud canard that sometimes involves buses and vans — and occasionally sea vessels — but almost always people from somewhere else.

In LePage’s case, the allegations of voter fraud centered on Maine’s former overlords: Liberal Massachusetts. While the state managed to break free of the Bay State’s grip 202 years ago, its place in residents’ imaginations lives on — and often as a cautionary tale of what confronts us if we’re not vigilant.

The issue, as LePage described during a campaign event in Auburn for GOP legislative candidates, is an abundance of Massachusetts residents eager to corrupt Maine elections.

"I have met some people — not in 2020, but it was during the gay marriage referendum from years back — came up on a bus from Massachusetts," he said. "I was the mayor at the time. They stayed at a hotel in Waterville overnight, voted and left the next day.”

Former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says it never happened. And current Secretary of State Shenna Bellows says it would be next to impossible to pull off such a scheme without getting noticed or caught.

“It doesn’t pass the straight-faced test,” Bellows said.

Bellows went on to explain at great length why such a caper is unlikely. Those interested in the details of Maine’s election system checks and balances can read all about it here.

Also of possible interest is the prolific use of outsiders as ways of drumming up voter fraud concerns.

LePage certainly isn’t the first politician in Maine to point the finger at Massachusetts residents. In 2011, former Maine Republican Party chairman Charlie Webster cited out-of-staters as culprits in tilting state and local elections for Democrats. It was the central thrust of his successful bid to convince GOP legislators in 2011 that they should repeal Maine’s same-day voter registration law. Webster argued Democrats used them to steal elections.

“Buses. They bring them in in buses,” Webster told the Portland Press Herald in 2011. “Job Corps people — they move ’em around to wherever they have a tough seat and they want to win an election.”

Webster went on to accuse more than 200 out-of-state college students of potential fraud during the subsequent people’s veto campaign to overturn the same-day voter registration repeal.

An investigation by Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers didn’t provide any proof and voters here restored same-day voter registration in a landslide.

As it turns out, LePage thought Webster’s push to eliminate same-day voter registration was a mistake. He told the crowd in Auburn that Republicans should have targeted voter ID.

“We had an opportunity in 2011 to fix it, but we had a chairman of our party who fought us and he wanted same-day voter registration instead of ID,” LePage said.

Webster wouldn’t remain the party chairman for much longer. He lost the chairmanship after Republicans lost control of the Legislature in 2012, but not before he blamed those losses on “dozens of Black people” who voted in local elections. Webster later apologized.

Nevertheless, it would not be accurate to say Maine politicians are uniquely worried about people from elsewhere disrupting elections. Some Republicans in New Hampshire have for years blamed liberals in Massachusetts for trying to corrupt elections.

The Massachusetts interloper was also the central figure in former President Donald Trump’s rationale for losing the Granite State in 2016.

“This issue of busing voters in to New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics,” Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Miller asserted on ABC News in 2017. “It’s very real, it’s very serious.”

He added, “This morning on this show is not the venue for me to lay out all the evidence.”

No evidence ever came. The fact-checking site Politifact tried to find it and instead got an interview with Fergus Cullen, who ran the NH GOP between 2007 and 2008.

He said stories about Massachusetts voters are as old as “the invention of the bus.”

"The result is that yes, it is possible and legal for someone to drive into a polling place in a car with out-of-state tags, register to vote, and vote," Cullen told PolitiFact. "Of course they have to sign affidavits and they would be risking significant legal penalties if they voted in more than one place or state.”

He added, “The odds of being caught are pretty high."

It would appear that the chances of getting caught for voter fraud would be especially high for Canadian citizens, but their rumored infiltration in Idaho elections became the impetus for an overhaul of that state’s voting laws last month.

“There (are) a lot of reports of people coming from Canada that I’ve been hearing just after coming back from Coeur d’Alene last night, that have been coming over and voting,” Republican state Rep. Dorothy Moon said during last month’s House debate. “So this just secures our elections.”

The Idaho Capital Sun asked state election officials if there were any reports about such activity.

“In short, no,” Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck told the Sun.

Of course, tales of outsiders corrupting elections can have serious consequences. The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol was inspired by a web of false and unproven claims that involved Chinese government hackers, Italian spy satellites and even a claim by Trump ally Roger Stone that North Koreans somehow dumped ballots at a mysterious Maine port.

And that’s why Dunlap wasn’t laughing at LePage’s allegations this week.

“The (allegations) erode confidence in democracy,” he said.

GOP opens “multicultural center”

Earlier this week, the Maine Republican Party formally opened a “multicultural center” in the left-leaning stronghold of Portland (on Munjoy Hill, no less). The new center is part of the GOP’s election-year outreach and attempts to reach new communities.

According to the party, the center will also “provide educational opportunities both in political training to amplify their voices within the community, but also assistance with job training, immigration assistance, language training, and much more.”

LePage was there for the grand opening and talked about how he embraces and welcomes immigrants, as long as they “come in the front door, not the back.”

“I endorse and I love refugees,” LePage said, according to the Portland Press Herald. “What I have a problem with is with fentanyl coming in, human trafficking coming in. That part of the southern border I have a real, real problem with, but the people coming in, I endorse them and I love them.”

The fact that the event was held with LePage in Portland wasn’t lost on his critics.

As governor, he repeatedly referred to asylum seekers as “illegals” and he battled for years to block the city from using state-funded general assistance to provide welfare to newly arrived asylum seekers. He also told the Obama administration in 2016 that Maine would no longer be involved with administering the federal refugee program. And he also suggested that asylum seekers were potentially bringing infectious diseases to Maine. (Many of those asylum seekers settled in or around Portland.)

Maine Democratic Party chairman Drew Gattine, who frequently sparred with LePage when he represented Westbrook in the Legislature, dismissed the GOP’s event and LePage, in particular.

“For eight years prior, the Maine GOP — led by Paul LePage — insulted new Mainers, sowed deep division among them, and left them feeling not only unwelcome, but genuinely scared for themselves and their future,” Gattine said in a statement. “Opening a campaign office during an election year isn’t going to erase the harm that Paul LePage has done to new Mainers or make them forget who he really is, what he stands for, and what he thinks of them.”

Racial profiling bill stalls

Racial profiling continues to be a politically divisive issue in Maine.

This week the Maine House voted to reject a bill that, while not directly addressing the racial profiling issue, was wrapped up in the debate over the sometimes-fraught relationship between police and the Black or minority drivers.

The bill would have prevented police from pulling over a vehicle for an expired registration or inspection sticker, tinted windows, a broken license plate light bulb or an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror.

Supporters contend that some police use such minor offenses as reasons to stop Black or other minority drivers. Opponents said the bill, if passed, would make Maine’s roads less safe by preventing police from stopping vehicles with potentially dangerous defects.

Several lawmakers recounted experiences of their own Black family members, or close friends, and the fear and intimidation they felt after being stopped.

Among them was Rep. Suzanne Salisbury, D-Westbrook, who said she and her husband, a retired police officer, have had to have “the conversation” with their biracial son about how to behave if he is pulled over by police: keep his hands on the wheel, don’t ask questions, do whatever the officer says.

But Salisbury also recalled how, after the debate on this bill began last year, she was pulled over in her own community. The officer said he thought her registration or inspection had expired but then added:

“But since I have you here, I want to talk to you about pretextual stops,” Salisbury said she was told by the officer. “This happens. And we need to do everything that we can to make sure when people are stopped it is for a reason that is going to help public safety, not for a reason for people to use their power for not good things.”

The bill ultimately only received 60 votes in support, with 77 opposed. Another bill dealing with racial profiling is still alive, however, and could be taken up by the full Legislature.

Ramping up

With their adjournment date looming in less than two weeks, the Legislature is slated to shift into hyperdrive.

The House and Senate are scheduled to convene every day next week after only meeting twice a week, or less, in recent weeks. There’s a long list of major issues still to be settled, tops among them the plan for how to spend the state’s estimated $1.2 billion surplus.

The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee was nearing completion of its work on that budget this week.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings. Maine's Political Pulse is written by Maine Public by political correspondents Kevin Miller and Steve Mistler and produced by digital news reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

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