AUGUSTA — Secretary of State Charles Summers on Wednesday testified in favor of a bill requiring candidates for elected office to provide additional proof of U.S. citizenship.
Critics blasted the proposal as a political stunt stemming from President Barack Obama's so-called "birther" controversy.
Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, is sponsoring LD 34, which as written would require public office candidates to show birth certificates in addition to driver's licenses or other government-issued identification documents to the Secretary of State's Office before qualifying for the ballot.
Currently, candidates for public office sign voter registration applications that ask them if they're U.S. citizens. The citizenship prerequisite is also included in the state Constitution for candidates running for the Legislature, governor and congressional offices.
Cebra's bill adds another verification layer to the current affidavit process.
During a public hearing before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, some critics said the proposal was bureaucratic and unnecessary; others said the bill takes aim at immigrants and people of color.
"In a media world where perception is reality, this anti-diversity measure is a national public relations disgrace for Maine people," said Ralph Carmona of The League of United Latino American Citizens.
Carmona said the bill "pandered to the worst part of our instincts," adding that it's "an irresponsible effort rooted in an extremist claim aimed at America's first African-American president."
After the hearing, Cebra said the bill was not related to the proliferation of so-called "birther" bills that have been advanced by GOP legislators in other states, a series of proposals driven by questions about Obama's citizenship.
"I have no interest in the birther idea, although it did raise the questions about the House and Senate candidates," Cebra said.
"It's 'trust but verify,'" he said. "I don't trust people. I prefer to verify what people do and who they are."
Critics of the proposal said Cebra's bill, and Summers' endorsement of it, was political pandering that attempted to solve a nonexistent problem.
Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, was one of the most vocal opponents during the committee hearing. After Summers testified that the proposal was not "onerous," Carey questioned how the bill would affect naturalized citizens who are born in another country and don't have birth certificates.
Carey also questioned the political motives of the proposal. During the hearing, he read to Summers testimony from former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who testified to an identical bill sponsored by Cebra last year. According to Dunlap's written testimony, he said his office was not aware of any candidates whose citizenship status had been questioned and "requesting proof of citizenship for these candidates seems unnecessary" and "redundant."
After Carey read Dunlap's testimony, Summers said Dunlap's opinion was from a different administration. He said new leadership in Augusta would yield new policy direction.
After the hearing, Carey said, "The secretary of state made it clear that this only came forward when there was a change in the political party," Carey said. "There's no noncitizen that's seeking to get on the ballot. This is a hypothetical issue. ... I think this is simply a political bill. I think the Legislature would be ill-advised to act upon it because it would trample on basic rights."
He added, "There's currently a constitutional requirement that candidates are U.S. citizens."
Cebra, however, said the state's affidavit verification isn't sufficient to prevent noncitizens from getting on the ballot.
"Signing an affidavit is a lot different than certifying the petition to get on the ballot," he said. "How stupid would the secretary of state look if he certified something and it turned out the candidate wasn't who they said they were?"
Alysia Melnick of the Maine Civil Liberties Union said Cebra's bill would add "unwarranted and unnecessary government intrusion" for citizens.
In her written testimony, Melnick said the oaths required under Maine citizenship were a sufficient check.
Carmona of The League of United Latino American Citizens provided the strongest condemnation of the bill, saying it was akin to the "moral clause" of the Jim Crow laws of the South and the "loyalty oath" of the Cold War.
Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, took issue with Carmona's comments, saying it insulted Cebra. After Crockett asked Carmona about his drive to Augusta, he asked if Carmona, of Mexican descent, found applying for a driver's license offensive, adding that Cebra's bill would entail the same process.
Carmona asked why that process was necessary.
"What is the purpose of raising this issue?" he said. "This bill originated from questions about the citizenship of the president of this country."
Debbie Barry of Lisbon Falls testified against the bill because she said it didn't go far enough. She said she didn't want to be "hoodwinked" by candidates who couldn't prove who they were.
Barry is cited as a tea party activist on the Maine Refounders website and has appeared in news accounts of various rallies.
Summers said there are no documented cases in which noncitizens have made it onto a Maine ballot. However, he equated Cebra's bill to the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at airports, which he said had resulted in "no terrorists flying on our planes."
"This bill just amplifies what's in the Constitution," Summers said.
The bill is scheduled for another work session, during which Cebra is expected to accept some language changes that would make it easier for naturalized citizens to qualify for a ballot.
Cebra's bill has eight co-sponsors, including Republican Reps. Dale Crafts of Lisbon Falls, Aaron Libby of Waterboro and Lance Harvell of Farmington.