AUGUSTA — In a move that critics say is designed to derail an ongoing effort to restore Election-Day voter registration, Secretary of State Charles Summers on Thursday leveled new allegations of possible voter and identity fraud.
Summers announced he was folding that ongoing investigation into the probe requested by Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster, who earlier this week made vague allegations that more than 200 college students "may have" voted illegally during the 2010 election.
The new allegations include serious charges that high-ranking officials in the Secretary of State's Office had ordered the destruction of documents that a complainant within the Bureau of Motor Vehicles believed showed that noncitizens had obtained voting and identity documents. If true, such actions could be considered criminal offenses.
But at the morning news conference, Summers revealed few details, claiming the case was under investigation by the Attorney General's Office. He said the allegations and the announcement had nothing to do with an ongoing people's veto campaign to restore same-day voter registration.
Nonetheless, the coalition leading the veto effort was skeptical of the timing and nature of the event. The rare news conference was held inside the Secretary of State's Office and it came just three days after Webster's allegations.
Webster has also refused to say whether his self-described investigation has any link to same-day voter registration.
Meanwhile, others questioned whether Summers' sensational but nonspecific allegations were designed to distract voters and legitimize Webster's oft-repeated, but thus far unsubstantiated claim, that same-day voter registration made the election system vulnerable to fraud.
David Farmer, a spokesman for Protect Maine Votes, the coalition leading the effort to restore same-day voter registration, said neither Summers nor Webster had presented any evidence showing that the allegations were in any way linked to same-day voter registration, a law that Maine had on the books for 38 years until the Republican-controlled Legislature repealed it last session.
"The timing of an announcement of investigation like this is closely related to the announcement by the (GOP) party chairman on Monday," Farmer said. "The timing is about confusing the issue. But as the secretary of state said, he doesn't see this issue being related to the people's veto campaign or the effort to repeal the ban on same-day voter registration and I take him at his word on that. But I do think the timing has the potential to confuse folks."
He added, "We're now hearing a lot about elections all at once and I think it's meant to confuse the issue."
Some Democrats also questioned Summers' decision to advance the investigation along with Webster's allegations, adding that the former vice chairman of the Maine GOP ran the risk of politicizing the Secretary of State's Office.
"The timing is certainly suspect," said Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston. "In the past, the chief election officer of the state has taken off his partisan hat for the good of the state."
Summers submitted the legislation that repealed same-day voter registration. He said at the time that the bill had nothing to do with voter fraud. Around the same time, Summers also said that Maine's voting system was efficient and working properly.
Asked about the latter statement Friday, Summers said, "I was obviously wrong."
According to Summers, his office was contacted by the BMV employee July 1. He declined to say how far along the investigation had progressed or to describe how many individuals were involved.
He said the BMV employee attempted to present her suspicions with documentation that showed identification fraud. Summers said the employee was instructed to shred the substantiating documents.
Given that Summers claims the allegations involved "senior-level management," he was asked whether any employees had been suspended or fired. He declined to answer.
Summers also wouldn't specify which administration was involved in the alleged cover-up, only that it wasn't his.
Matt Dunlap, the former Secretary of State for five years under Gov. John Baldacci, said he had no knowledge of such activity occurring on his watch.
Dunlap, who has supported same-day voter registration but who isn't involved in the veto effort, also questioned whether the investigation was politically motivated.
"These are serious criminal charges," Dunlap said. "There is no way I would jeopardize the integrity of the election process or the Secretary of State's office. ... If anything, I tried to be proactive in making sure noncitizens didn't get a driver's license or vote. To my knowledge, it didn't happen on my watch."
Lizzy Reinholt, the communications director for the Maine Democratic Party, wondered whether the investigation was designed to implicate Dunlap, a registered Democrat and rumored 2012 challenger to U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
Regardless of potential political motives, most agreed that the latest allegations were serious. It's also unclear how such an act could be perpetrated in a system that includes several checks within BMV, the Secretary of State's Office and individual town clerks.
In 2008, Dunlap oversaw the implementation of new residency standards required to obtain a Maine driver's license or ID card, which can then be used to register to vote or purchase a weapon.
The acceptable documents include items such as a tax return, a valid college ID or a Social Security card.
In addition, within the BMV is the Office of Investigation, which is staffed by about a dozen sworn law enforcement officers trained in ID theft and fraud. Typically, Dunlap said, if BMV employees suspect malfeasance, they are required to alert the Office of Investigation, which then explores the matter. There are other protocols that take place before a complaint reaches senior staff.
It was not known whether the BMV employee described in Summers' investigation followed those steps.
Nonetheless, Summers said he was "shocked" at the information his office had uncovered. He declined to elaborate, except to say that federal authorities were involved in the investigation.
Summers would not elaborate on Webster's allegations against more than 200 out-of-state college students except to say that "there was enough there" to push the investigation to the attorney general.
It is legal for out-of-state college students to vote in their college towns as long as they have established residency there. However, some Republican lawmakers have tried to change the law.
Meanwhile, Farmer, with the veto coalition, said his group was well on its way to getting the 57,000 signatures required to get Election Day voter registration on the November ballot. The coalition must submit the signatures for verification by Aug. 8. It began gathering signatures in early July.
Supporters of same-day voter registration note that more than 62,000 Mainers registered on Election Day during the last two elections. Some also attribute the effort to repeal same-day voter registration to a national Republican-led effort to implement more restrictive voting laws.
At least 33 state legislatures, including Maine's, have introduced such bills. Critics say the model legislation is designed to give Republicans an electoral advantage by making it difficult for young people and poor people to vote.