AUGUSTA (AP) – Lawyers for the state and independent U.S. Senate candidate Herbert Hoffman fended off claims by a Democratic Party leader Thursday that Hoffman should effectively be kicked off the November ballot because he violated rules for gathering nominating petition signatures.

At an hour-long hearing before Superior Court Justice Donald Marden, lawyers argued fine points of Maine’s law that requires a minimum of 4,000 valid voters’ signatures on petitions to get a candidate’s name on the ballot for Senate.

The case is important to the Maine Democrats, who are concerned that Hoffman could draw votes away from their party’s Senate nominee, Rep. Tom Allen, in one of the nation’s most closely watched fall Senate races. The Republican candidate is two-term incumbent Sen. Susan Collins.

Maine Republicans were quick to label the case a desperation move to keep Hoffman off the November ballot, and noted that the secretary of state already ruled twice that Hoffman has enough valid signatures to compete in the election.

State GOP Chairman Mark Ellis called efforts to challenge the candidacy of the retired psychologist from Ogunquit “backwards” and “undemocratic.”

“Give Mr. Hoffman and his supporters a chance,” Ellis said in a statement.

After a hearing on Hoffman’s case in June, election officials determined his campaign had collected 38 signatures more than the minimum 4,000 needed for ballot listing. The complaint by John Knutson of Brooklin, chair of the Maine Democratic Committee, draws attention to three signatures.

Democrats contend Hoffman, as a sworn petition circulator, violated his oath because he was not present or aware that three voters had signed one of the petitions.

That should, Knutson lawyer Daniel Walker argued, invalidate the entire petition sheet on which those names appeared. The effect would be to deny Hoffman a place on the ballot.

“This case today is a simple case about oaths,” Walker told the judge.

Phyllis Gardiner, an assistant attorney general representing the secretary of state’s office, which oversees elections in Maine, acknowledged that the case “illustrates some ambiguities in the statutory scheme” of the petition circulating law.

Given those ambiguities, she said, it’s up to the secretary of state to interpret what is meant by language that says petitions must be signed “in the presence of” circulators. No one has disputed that the three signatures in question were those of legal voters.

The stakes of throwing out whole petition sheets would be high because it would “disenfranchise” every person who signed the Hoffman for Senate petitions, said John Branson, attorney for Hoffman.

Hoffman, a former Democrat, did not testify. He said after the hearing that Walker did not prove the allegations in the case.

“I did not file any false statements, I did not make any false votes. I’m an honest person, I have integrity, and when I signed those petition sheets and had them notarized, I was doing that in good faith and honestly,” Hoffman said.

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