Political Pulse: Election Day registration supporters battle opponents' stagecraft

Supporters of a people's veto campaign to restore Election Day voter registration were obviously concerned when Secretary of State Charlie Summers announced last Wednesday that he was holding a news conference to discuss what his office described as "preliminary findings regarding voter fraud allegations."

The group's anxiety was partially attributable to fears that Summers may have discovered voting impropriety within Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster's mysterious — some say dubious — list of 206 out-of-state college students.

But more worrisome to the coalition was the scene that unfolded the next day in Summers' office.

A throng of television cameras, radio and print reporters awaited his remarks. Supporters of same-day voter registration knew that visuals of Summers in his office would appear on that night's newscasts, that afternoon's newspaper websites and in print the next day.

In effect, the opponents of same-day voter registration, who include Summers himself, would own the news cycle for at least 24 hours. Webster had achieved the same feat just three days earlier, and had done so without presenting any real evidence, merely a redacted list of college students who he said "may have" committed fraud.

The coalition said the timing of Summers' news conferences was suspect. But the timing was also problematic for a signature-gathering effort closing in on its Aug. 8 deadline in order to get the same-day voter registration on the November ballot.

Summers opened with a stunning and sensational bombshell: His office had discovered potential identification fraud and a cover-up within the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. That investigation, he said, would be folded into a probe of Webster's vague allegations against college students.

How many people were involved? Did they vote? Was this new allegation linked in any way to same-day voter registration? What evidence was there that Webster's list warranted an official probe by the state's attorney general?

In about 15 minutes of questioning, Summers offered few answers. He said he was prohibited from discussing anything because of the ongoing investigation.

Which begs the question: What was the purpose of the news conference?

Such events are not often held in the Secretary of State's Office. It's also rare for any enforcement or regulatory agency to draw media attention to a preliminary investigation into potential criminal activity.

The news conference had the appearance of the "dope on the table" events hosted by law enforcement after a drug bust. David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of the television series "The Wire," described those media events like this:

"The city is awash in heroin, cocaine and guns. ... It’s like the entire city is swimming and they’ve literally put a beaker of water on the table and gone, 'Look, we’ve done police work.' But dope on the table works. The cameras always come."

There was a difference between "dope on the table" and the events staged by Summers and Webster.

For starters, cop reporters know for a fact that drugs are a problem. Voter fraud, in Maine and elsewhere, is less tangible. Only two cases have been prosecuted in Maine in recent years.

Webster claims that it's more widespread, citing "poll flooding" and buses of nonresidents deployed to tilt close elections. But to this point Webster's evidence has been anecdotal and unsubstantiated.

That's what made the Summers-Webster news conferences so fascinating. In effect, they presented the public with Simon's beaker, but it contained no dope, no fraud. The beaker symbolized only the possibility that fraud may, or may not, be discovered in the AG's investigation.

Additionally, neither Summers nor Webster would say if their investigations were in any way linked to same-day voter registration. When pressed Friday morning on WGAN 560, Summers still wouldn't provide an answer.

But it was still a blow to the veto coalition. By simply tossing out the words "fraud" and "voters," Summers and Webster had commanded the news cycle for a week.

It didn't matter that they didn't, or couldn't, connect those words to same-day voter registration. The absence of that key link is only important to those engaged in the debate, not those who scan a headline or overhear a newscast.  

Democrats and members of the veto coalition have since accused Webster and Summers of political stagecraft, a calculated effort to provoke residents' fear of ominous, yet unproven voter fraud. On Friday, the Maine Democratic Party said Summers was "walking a thin line between playing partisan politics and fulfilling his duty as secretary of state."

Whether or not those allegations are founded well depend on the outcome of Attorney General William Schneider's investigation.

Schneider, a Republican, has rarely, if ever, been accused of politicizing his office. In fact, Schneider's ruling on former Department of Environmental Protection chief Darryl Brown and his conflict with the Clean Water Act was unpopular with some Republicans, who hoped for a more favorable interpretation of the law.

It will be interesting to see if Schneider's office turns up malfeasance and when results of the investigation will be released, particularly if the coalition's signature-gathering effort is successful.

More interesting is if Summers or Webster will hold another news conference and put the dope on the table.

smistler@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Naran Row-Spaulding's picture

I have no issue with what

I have no issue with what either Summers or Webster have done in regard to allegations of voter fraud in Maine.

After all, if the Democrats can base an entire political campaign on doom-and-gloom fears of "mittens in classrooms" and "old people starving and freezing to death with no rescue" -- think TABOR I and II -- then why can't the Maine Secretary of State hold a press conference to announce that his office has received credible evidence of voter fraud at a state department?

It seems to me the allegations of "stagecraft" and "empty beakers" would have been better employed during the TABOR campaigns. I never in all my life saw such a fetid collection of trumped-up alarmisms. The whole campaigns belonged in a wax museum.

In comparison, a couple of press conferences is like the flea riding on a woolly mammoth.

Bob Stone's picture

Where's the Dope?

I think we can find him at the keyboard.

Suggest locating this on the Editorial Page, if you had to run it at all.

Wasted 5 minutes reading this. Should have known better.

Why are ad revenues down again?

Naran Row-Spaulding's picture

Opinion, not a News Article

I agree, Bob. This piece is clearly opinion, and should be labeled as such.

Bob Stone's picture

And I forgot...

Over to "Tron"

Bob Stone's picture

The use of the word "dope" was not lost on me

Mistler wasn't very nice in his subtle connection of "dope" to Webster and Summers. I merely turned the tables around and called him on it. It is fun to call people names, but not so much fun to be called on it, apparently.

It goes both ways in life. Sometimes you are the windshield;sometimes you are the bug.

Doreen Sheive's picture

Politics

As we all know the Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, and State Auditor are politically appointed positions. Whichever ruling political party in the Legislature appoints these people to their positions. However, in the past, the people in these positions have been fairly apolitical in their actions. Politics came into play almost immediately with the consideration of who was appointed when LePage strongly recommended to the Republican legislators that they appoint Poliquin as Treasurer. Now, we have the Secretary of State getting very involved into the political arena. The problem is not that they are investigating voter fraud, it is that he announced that there was an investigation without any facts. His statements were full of innuendoes without any facts. It was of interest that the Attorney General did not participate in this farce. If these appointed offices are to be so political, I think it is time for them to be elected positions. Let these people run for offices and be voted in by the residents of Maine. Make them accounted to all of us.

Naran Row-Spaulding's picture

There were indeed "facts"

There were indeed "facts" presented. Both Webster and Summers stated very clearly what their allegations contain - voter fraud, and improper voting.

Think about police records or criminal investigations -- all you get is the basics, until the investigation is complete.

In this case, the refusal to name the people who might be involved is prudent, and proper. Those people haven't yet been charged with any crime, so it's appropriate to leave those details until they are charged. In particular, that applies to state employees.

Doreen Sheive's picture

Obviously, I do not expect us to agree

Neither Webster or Summers said there was absolutely fraud. They both said that there may have been. As a matter of fact what Summers talked about was someone getting a driver's license for what reason we do not know.

Courts and the police are very careful about the information they release until they are sure of the findings.

I did not say that they should name names. What I said was that Summers should not have said anything. He said just enough for people to wonder who was in charge when these alleged acts occurred. He could have simply said that he has asked the AG's office to investigate the materials that Webster gave him. But, instead he puts out no facts just innuendoes. Summers is supposed to represent all of us Mainers. It is not appropriate for him to be so political. Please note that the AG, rightfully, kept his opinions to himself.

Naran Row-Spaulding's picture

I disagree, and here's why --

I disagree, and here's why -- if it turns out the fraud allegations are valid, resulting in prosecutions, the AG and SOS would have been accused of a "cover up" for NOT disclosing the investigations upfront.

They are acting properly, because "the people's business shall be done publicly."

Doreen Sheive's picture

Not true

Come on now. In other instances of fraud, we find out the facts after the investigations not before. You might accuse them of a cover-up, but I certainly would not. And, in case you haven't noticed, these days many are picking and choosing just what they want the public to know or not to know. All I am asking is that these political appointments not be political and just do their jobs. If they can't, then they should be elected and be accountable to all us Mainers. Webster can do whatever he pleases since he does not represent all Mainers.

Naran Row-Spaulding's picture

Same Goes for Both Parties

As head of the Maine Democratic party, Ben Grant is also "free to do as he pleases." That's because neither party is an official government entity, which is how it should be. Nobody should be electing party officials but the members of that party.

Regardless, I believe that both Summers and Webster are acting properly in disclosing the investigation information now. It's nice of you to say that you wouldn't accuse them of a cover-up, had they failed to disclose, but there are many others who would do exactly that.

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