You know you’re on the wrong side of an issue when you’re afraid to call it by name.
Over the last few days, Maine’s airwaves have been bombarded by a 15-second television ad urging a “no” vote on Question 1 in Tuesday’s referendum election.
Question 1, as most of us know, involves Maine’s tradition of allowing voters to register at the polls on Election Day – a “yes” vote restores so-called “same-day voter registration,” while a “no” vote upholds the Legislature’s decision last spring to prohibit the practice for the first time in almost 40 years.
A simple and straightforward choice? You’d think so.
But then there’s that ad …
“Who should decide Maine’s elections? Mainers? Or outsiders from other states?” asks a female narrator while a weird graphic shows the five other New England states and New York creeping up on poor, unsuspecting Maine.
“Today,” she continues, “outside interests are trying to get rid of Maine’s election ethics law.”
OK, let’s pause it right there.
Maine’s “election ethics law”? Where, pray tell, did that never-before-uttered phrase come from?
Good luck getting an answer to that one.
The ad was paid for and released last week by Secure Maine’s Ballot, the group leading the Question 1 “no” campaign.
As the Lewiston Sun Journal reported last week, Jen Webber, the group’s spokeswoman, could not say what the ad meant by the phrase “Maine’s election ethics law.”
Nevertheless, Webber told the newspaper, “We believe it’s an effective ad.”
How nice. They can’t explain the origin of their ad’s pivotal phrase – but they sure know it’s working!
I called Webber on Friday to get her to elaborate a bit, but she didn’t call back. Instead, I heard from Lance Dutson, CEO of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center.
Since he was calling on Secure Maine’s Ballot’s behalf, might Dutson enlighten us on who coined the phrase “Maine’s election ethics law”? And while he’s at it, might he explain why the words “same-day registration” are never uttered?
“I didn’t buy the ad and I didn’t produce the ad,” Dutson said. “We’re a corollary organization here.”
It turns out Dutson actually wanted to talk about other things. Like the fact that Donald Sussman, the wealthy hedge-fund manager who’s married to Maine’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, contributed $285,000 to the pro-Question 1 “Yes on 1/Protect Maine Votes.”
Sussman, according to Dutson, is that “outside interest” mentioned in the ad.
Wait a minute. Isn’t Sussman a legal Maine resident who’s entitled – this being a free country and all – to spend his money wherever and however he pleases?
“Do you know he’s a Maine citizen?” countered Dutson.
Well, judging from the fact that Sussman holds a Maine driver’s license and is a registered voter in North Haven, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say yes, the man’s one of us.
Dutson also wants us to think a coalition of 23 nonprofit Maine organizations behind Yes on 1/Protect Maine Votes – the League of Women Voters, the Maine chapter of AARP, to name a couple – are “usurping the elected will of the Maine people.” By which he means the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage.
This from the same organization that just last year supported the use of the people’s veto to deep-six a tax-reform package passed by a Democratic-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. John Baldacci – also known as the “elected will of the Maine people.”
But we digress. Back to that 15-second ad, which, in its disclosure line, doesn’t even get Secure Maine’s Ballot’s name right. (It clumsily identifies the source as a nonexistent “No on 1, Protect Maine’s Ballot.”)
The ad cost the “no” side $162,565 to put on the air. Under Maine’s election laws, Secure Maine’s Ballot doesn’t have to tell us the source of that money until well after Tuesday’s referendum.
Fair enough. But heck, since Dutson & Company consider funding such a critical component of this contest, why not tell us now?
“Because that’s not the issue,” Dutson replied.
Right. Pardon us for even wondering.
We turn, as a last resort, to the one conservative in Maine who, for the life of him, can’t keep his mouth shut.
Please welcome back Charlie Webster, the irascible chairman of the Maine Republican Party.
WCSH-TV reported Friday that Webster told them “no one in Maine was involved or consulted in the creation of the (15-second) ad.”
Rather, the station reported, Webster said it was the work of “a conservative group from out of state – which he did not name.”
So there we have it.
A political ad that’s as clear as mud falsely depicts Yes on 1/Protect Maine Votes as a cover for unnamed “outside interests” bent on meddling in Maine’s elections – and that same ad was conceived, created and funded by unnamed outside interests bent on meddling in Maine’s elections.
Can we say “hypocrisy”?
Expect things to get worse between now and Election Day. As you read this, the “no” side is circulating newspaper ads and mailers implying that the whole effort to restore same-day registration is a sinister plot by everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to Maine’s gays and lesbians. (Who else?)
But when you head for the polls Tuesday – and by the way, you can still register there until this thing is decided – a few things are worth remembering about a practice that has kept Maine at or near the top of the nation in voter turnout for almost four decades.
The “no” forces, intent on keeping same-day registrants (read: college students, elderly people, renters, new citizens) out of the voting booth, began this fight by claiming the process puts too big a burden on Maine’s municipal clerks and election workers.
That’s not true – and the clerks and election workers have repeatedly said so.
Then they claimed same-day registration has spawned rampant voter fraud by all those college kids and others intent on undermining our democracy.
And now they want you to believe that by voting “no” on Question 1, you’re somehow supporting something called “Maine’s election ethics law.”
Seriously, fellow Mainers, you can’t make this stuff up.
Except someone from away, whoever they are, just did.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org