LEWISTON — After several months of bizarre twists and turns, the battle over Election Day registration is over.
The coalition that sought to restore Maine's 38-year-old election law on Tuesday successfully beat back the Republican Legislature's efforts to repeal it.
And it wasn't close.
The Associated Press called the race for the Yes on 1 campaign at 9:40 Tuesday night.
According to unofficial results, the coalition that worked to restore EDR held a large lead over the groups that sought to repeal the law. With more than half of the state's 594 precincts reporting, voters favored retaining EDR, 60 percent to 40 percent.
The Yes on 1 campaign, which this summer gathered enough signatures in just seven weeks to get on the November ballot, won a wide cross-section of rural and urban precincts.
Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, called the campaign "a resounding victory for Maine," adding that support for voting rights was supported by voters regardless of party affiliation.
"We spoke with one voice," Carey said. "Now it's time to get back to Augusta and get back to work on the economy."
The defeat was a tough one for the Legislature's new Republican majority. The repeal of EDR was sponsored by GOP leaders, including House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.
But the GOP leadership was not the face of the No on 1 campaign. That role belonged to Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster. Webster's tactics during the campaign included alleging that college students were potentially committing voter fraud and that Democrats were guilty of poll flooding.
But Webster's accusations of fraud were never backed with hard evidence, leading EDR advocates to claim Webster was peddling fear to restrict typical Democratic constituencies from voting.
"The advantage we had was the truth," said David Farmer, spokesman for Protect Maine Votes. "The facts carried the day. Same-day voter registration works and it has for nearly 40 years. Unlike other states, Mainers wouldn't stand for the erosion of their voting rights. They should be very proud of that."
On Tuesday, Webster was unapologetic, despite taking heat during the final days of the campaign for a print ad that singled out a gay rights group's support for EDR.
"In politics you have those who want to get along and those who want to fight," he said. "I'm a fighter."
It remains to be seen whether Webster will pay a price among the Republican rank and file. Several GOP lawmakers were unenthusiastic about supporting repeal of EDR during the legislative session. Initial votes to pass LD 1376 failed in the Legislature as several Republicans sided with Democrats.
Asked if he thought his support for the repeal would cost him support in the party, Webster said he didn't think he had that much influence in legislative affairs.
"I wish I could take that much credit for anything," he said.
Asked if the loss would cost him the GOP chairmanship, Webster said, "If they want a street fighter, that's what they have. I would be shocked if more than a handful of people didn't support what I'm trying to do."
He added, "If they want to throw me under the bus, that's OK."
Democrats were quick to blast Webster on Tuesday.
"For months, Charlie Webster has been attacking and intimidating voters," Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said. "He started this campaign with a baseless accusation of voter fraud and ended it with homophobic advertisements and mailers. All the while, Republican leaders stood on the sidelines silently condoning this behavior. And today, Mainers told them they would not stand for it."
Not quick to abandon campaign form, Webster attributed the coalition's victory to its deep pockets, in particular Donald Sussman, the hedge fund manager and husband of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine. Sussman, who gave heavily to the Yes on 1 campaign, has frequently contributed to progressive candidates and causes.
Webster said Mainers should be concerned that someone like Sussman can influence elections. However, he also acknowledged that the No on 1 campaign was at a disadvantage because the content of some of its advertisements was determined by outside groups.
"We couldn't control the message," he said.
Webster also said the issue didn't resonate with conservatives. The coalition argued that that was because Republicans and Democrats both supported voting rights.
"What this shows is that all Mainers — Republicans, Democrats and independents — take their voting rights very seriously," Farmer said.
Democrat and Republican voters have made heavy use of Election Day registration during the past two elections.
Toby McGrath, a political consultant who has run several referendum campaigns, including this year's Yes on 2 effort to authorize racinos in Biddeford and Calais, said the coalition supporting EDR ran a disciplined campaign designed to take advantage of the low turnout.
"They built a broad coalition, a coalition that you can turn into votes," McGrath said. "You can really affect an election when you have membership. Their ads were good. They were clear about what this was about. They used Mainers to explain this."
McGrath said opponents of EDR never found a consistent message.
"The No on 1 people were completely all over the place," McGrath said. "They were running 15-second ads; they were all over the place. They weren’t that clear and they weren’t authentic."
Webster's tactics in the campaign were a source of controversy, even among some Republicans.
On Monday, Webster defended print ads paid for by the Maine GOP political action committee that targeted a gay rights advocacy group's support for EDR. Webster acknowledged that the ads prompted concerns from some Republican lawmakers that they cast the party in a negative light.
Republican tea party candidate for U.S. Senate Andrew Ian Dodge, who is taking on U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said the ads were uncalled for. He said Webster should resign.
“The gay-bashing and xenophobic advertisements run recently by those against ballot Question 1 should be condemned by all Maine residents," Dodge wrote in a statement.
Nutting, who was the lead sponsor of the law repealing EDR, was unavailable for comment Tuesday night. His spokesman, Jim Cyr, said the speaker wouldn't release a statement until Wednesday.
Cyr, speaking on Nutting's behalf, said it was too soon to tell how the restoration of EDR would affect an upcoming effort to require voters to show photo identification at the polls. The Legislature held over that bill last session.
"The speaker believes that same-day voter registration and photo ID are separate issues," Cyr said.
Asked Tuesday if he was surprised by the margin of victory, Farmer said, "We're gratified by the margin."