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.