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LePage’s selective worries about voter fraud, explained

Paul LePage, Republican candidate for governor, speaks to reporters during a campaign stop outside Dysart's Restaurant and Pub, Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Bangor, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Paul LePage, Republican candidate for governor, speaks to reporters during a campaign stop outside Dysart's Restaurant and Pub, Thursday, May 19, 2022, in Bangor, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: Why LePage is praising small-town elections while casting doubt on larger ones, Kyle Fitzsimons' Jan. 6 trial draws to a close, Maine's U.S. senators briefed on Trump investigation and LePage gets combative.

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage has made several voter fraud accusations over the years, including this spring when he made unsubstantiated claims about a ballot-stuffing scheme that existing election laws make nearly impossible to execute. But on at least two occasions this summer, he has suggested that cheating Maine elections is actually quite difficult, except in the larger municipalities that, for the most part, have previously voted for someone other than him.

“I will say that in Maine I have great confidence in small towns ... I’d say towns with less than 1,000 people, because usually the clerk knows everybody in town,” he said during a recent event in Mount Vernon. “I have less confidence when you get to Bangor, Rockland, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland. Those are areas you have to be more careful about.”

With the exception of Lewiston, all of the municipalities that LePage claimed are at higher risk of fraud chose someone other than him in 2010 and 2014. LePage also has a track record of winning towns with fewer than 1,000 people.

His remarks were rebuffed by the Maine Democratic Party and Democratic Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. Bellows said falsehoods about election security have made election workers targets of harassment and threats. (Those threats led the Maine Legislature this year to back a law to stiffen criminal penalties after it was supported by the Maine Town Clerks Association.)

“Our clerks work hard to make sure Maine elections are free, fair and secure,” Bellows tweeted. “Strong chain of custody protections, checks and balances and a paper ballot protect against fraud. To suggest otherwise is a lie.”

Towns of every size follow the same state laws governing elections. All use paper ballots. All have the same checks and balances and chain of custody rules to protect against tampering — before, during and after voting.

Nevertheless, the distinction that LePage has concocted about the election security between large and small towns likely serves another purpose in his quest to defeat Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

Republicans have long raised the specter of voter fraud to justify restrictions or tighter voting rules, but their efforts have intensified since the 2020 election when former President Donald Trump and his allies relentlessly and falsely claimed that the contest was rigged. That has led wide swaths of the Republican electorate to believe that tighter voting rules are more necessary now than ever.

Avowed 2020 election deniers who are promising voting overhauls are winning many of the 2022 Republican primaries, particularly in swing states. GOP candidates have refused to say President Joe Biden was duly elected, including 2nd District candidate Bruce Poliquin, who's trying to win back his old seat in a district that voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

The problem for Republicans is that polls show non-GOP voters are either skeptical of, or repelled by, rigged-election and fraud rhetoric that many now associate with the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last year.

The result is rhetorical juggling by some Republican candidates, particularly those clear of GOP primary contests, and especially those like LePage who will likely need votes from independents this year.

The former governor has made his desire for a photo identification requirement a prominent feature in his argument for another term. His quest for such legislation sputtered multiple times during his two terms as governor, but a survey by the Pew Research Center showed that the concept has a reasonable amount of support across party lines.

And so, LePage has pitched voter ID in different ways to different audiences.

His debunked ballot-stuffing claims came at a GOP candidate event this spring. He later abandoned those claims when asked about election fraud by an interviewer during a campaign event hosted by Republican state Rep. Heidi Sampson. (Sampson last year circulated so-called affidavits that ordered Maine officials to turn over voting data to the same people supporting Trump’s stolen election fallacy.)

His comments at the Sampson event were similar to the ones he made to the audience in Mount Vernon, a town with about 1,700 residents that he carried in 2014, but not overwhelmingly.

His remarks in Mount Vernon about the integrity of small-town elections, Maine’s paper ballot system and absentee voting protections were forceful — and mostly accurate.

However, saying those protections also exist in larger towns, which they do, likely doesn’t bolster his case for voter ID, nor will it appease a GOP electorate that has been convinced by Republican politicians that voter and election fraud are rampant.

Fitzsimons trial

The belief that the 2020 election was stolen has anchored the criminal defense of Kyle Fitzsimons, the Lebanon man who is facing nearly a dozen charges for his involvement in the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last year.

Federal prosecutors say Fitzsimons assaulted two police officers and nearly injured another when Trump supporters attempted to break police lines and breach the Capitol.

Natasha Taylor-Smith, Fitzsimons’ appointed attorney, argues her client did not plan to get involved in the violent assault and that he showed up at the Capitol on Jan. 6 because he had been told by mainstream media sources, and former President Trump himself, that there was a plan to peacefully object to the election certification.

That defense has been standard for many of the nearly 900 people who have been charged in the riots.

Fitzsimons is one of five Maine residents facing criminal charges for their involvement in the insurrection.

The government’s case against Fitzsimons has included Maine witnesses, including Aisha Woodward, chief of staff to 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden. Woodward, testifying under subpoena, described two voicemails Fitzsimons left for Golden’s office in late Dec. 2020 as “menacing.”

“I am asking for your courage, sir. Courage to dispute what we all know is a garbage election," Fitzsimons said in the voicemail played during the trial. "Will you have the courage to object on the 6th?"

Closing arguments in the trial were scheduled for Friday morning.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras will determine Fitzsimons’ fate because the defendant opted for a bench trial instead of jury trial.

King and Collins meet FBI director

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King of Maine met this week with FBI Director Christopher Wray in Portland to discuss the investigation into Trump and his possible violations of the Espionage Act.

Staffers for both senators confirmed that they met with Wray during an unpublicized meeting, but neither Collins, a Republican, nor King, an independent, have said much since then.

That’s unlikely to change.

Collins and King are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which often receives classified briefings from intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies. The committee recently requested such a briefing about the Trump investigation and Collins last week said the panel should be able to review all classified documents taken during the search of Trump’s Florida residence after a judge authorized a warrant.

Collins said the documents should also include the probable cause affidavit the FBI used to justify its request for the search warrant. She had originally described the search of Mar-a-Lago as “unprecedented,” and possibly “excessive” if the FBI’s action was strictly a document dispute with the National Archives. That was before the unsealed warrant showed that Trump was being investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act.

The Justice Department, which oversees the FBI, has resisted unsealing the affidavit because it says doing so could jeopardize the investigation and possibly unmask witnesses. Several media organizations have also asked the federal judge in the case to unseal it.

The extent to which Wray discussed the Senate Intelligence Committee's request with King and Collins is unclear. King’s office has been steadfast in declining to comment on the Wray meeting and a spokesperson for Collins said the investigation was part of an hourlong discussion that included other topics.

Reboot: LePage vs. Dem tracker

“Six feet away, or I’m going to deck you,” LePage told a Democratic tracker after the two crossed paths during an event in Madawaska last weekend.

He added, “If you come into my space, you’re going down. Enough is enough.”

The former governor’s encounter with the Democratic tracker, first publicized by the Daily Beast, briefly lit up social media Thursday as Democrats framed it as evidence that the combative LePage of not-that-long ago is still very much the LePage of today.

LePage’s campaign and the Maine Republican Party defended the governor by bringing up his difficult childhood in comments to the Bangor Daily News. Maine GOP executive director Jason Savage told the BDN that LePage’s upbringing in an abusive home put him under a “different level of personal threat,” while political advisor Brent Littlefield reportedly said, “Paul LePage is not like most people. He was homeless as a child and was forced to live on the streets, overcoming tremendous odds to earn an advanced college degree, become a successful businessman, mayor and governor.”

It’s not the first time that LePage’s advisors and allies have used his childhood to explain his conduct. It’s also not the first time he has gotten upset with someone whose job is to follow him around and record him doing or saying embarrassing things. (Trackers, paid or volunteer, are common in contemporary politics; Republicans have sent volunteers to record Gov. Mills on several occasions.)

In 2012, LePage took aim at another Democratic tracker who had been deployed to get footage of the governor before his 2014 reelection. The tracker’s presence irked LePage, who railed against him during the swearing-in ceremony of new legislators in 2012. He also released an official statement vowing not to meet with Democratic legislative leaders until they called off the party’s tracker.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week chief political correspondent Steve Mistler and produced by digital 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.