Maine’s Democratic and Republican parties have long dispatched volunteers to the polls to ensure that the other side doesn’t pull any shenanigans on Election Day.
This year, with high stakes seen in the outcomes of state and federal races, the Maine Democratic Party is claiming that the Republican poll-watching effort is designed to intimidate voters and suppress the vote.
The charge stems from an email sent from the Maine Republican Party to supporters, detailing plans to send volunteers to selected polling places to observe and potentially challenge new voter registrations.
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said the practice is “part and parcel” of Republicans’ attempts “to stoke fears that illegal votes are being cast when they’re not.
“It’s a voter suppression tactic,” said Grant, adding that Republicans “tipped their hand” last year when they tried to repeal Maine’s same-day voter registration law based on concerns about voter fraud.
The claims of fraud never panned out, feeding a national narrative that the Republican Party’s expressed concerns cloaked its intentions of gaining an electoral advantage.
Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster dismissed the claim, saying that poll watching — and vote challenging — are routine in every election.
“Both parties do this, it’s not a big secret,” Webster said. “Both sides will send people to districts where they think there is a concern or something could go wrong or inappropriate.”
The parties take different approaches to poll watching. Republicans often station volunteers at voter check-in lines to monitor whether registered Republicans have voted. They have also deployed volunteers to watch, and potentially challenge, questionable new voter registrants.
Democrats dispatch volunteer lawyers to polling places, they say, only to ensure that challenged voters still vote. The party argues that the Republican challengers are there to intimidate new voters, such as college students, who would be inclined to vote for Democrats.
Such a standoff played out publicly in 2003. According to a report in The Maine Campus, Republican volunteers challenged 50 of 374 voters at a precinct near the University of Maine. The report said the challengers singled out college students, some of whom complained that they were unfairly targeted.
All of the challenged votes were counted. Election authorities found no evidence of voter impersonation or double voting.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said only two incidents of double voting have been confirmed in Maine in the last 40 years. She said voter impersonation hasn’t been documented at all in that period.
Democrats argue that Republicans’ challenges are meant to confuse or discourage some voters from participating in elections.
Webster, Maine’s Republican chairman, said poll challenges are meant to ensure that the people who are voting should be.
He said challengers will be sent to precincts with competitive races. In particular, they will watch voting in towns with more than one legislative district, to make sure that no one votes in the wrong district.
“I know of two particular places — I’m not going to say where they are — that we want to make sure that we get people there to check because I don’t trust these people,” he said. “In one of them, I know for a fact that the neighboring district is not a contested race, so I feel quite confident that people will be moving in across the (district) border to vote in the contested race. I want to make sure that the people legally vote.”
The Democratic rhetoric on intimidation plays into national reports of voter suppression efforts in states including Florida and Ohio.
“In other states, groups have shown up at the polls as a form of intimidation,” Bellows said. “We haven’t seen that in Maine, because every vote gets counted.”
According to Maine election law, even ballots that are challenged count on Election Day. Challenged ballots are later reviewed by election officials to ensure that the registrations and ballots are legitimate.
Bellows said Maine laws discourage voter intimidation. Challengers must swear under oath that they have “personal knowledge” or a “reasonably supported belief” that someone is unqualified to register and vote.
“It is a crime to challenge a voter under false pretenses,” Bellows said. “Nobody is allowed to simply go to a voting place and challenge somebody because they look a certain way.”
Bellows said the ACLU of Maine will have lawyers at selected precincts to make sure voters are able to cast ballots.
“We’re on hand to defend the right of any voter who feels that they’ve been challenged,” she said. “Elections have worked very well for decades. We certainly hope that nothing is going to change this election.”
Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: