A group that was videotaping voters at polling places Tuesday morning is being criticized for intimidating people who were considering whether to sign petitions.

Some of the videotapers from Project Dirigo engaged voters and signature-gatherers about whether universal background checks for gun purchases are right for Maine. Other Project Dirigo members didn’t interact while they used a small video camera to record the signature-gathering.

One member stood next to a petition on background checks and videotaped people as they signed at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, an election worker said.

Shoshana Hoose, who was gathering signatures to force a 2016 referendum to require universal background checks for firearms purchases, said a Project Dirigo member asked her and others for their name and address.

She told them her name but questioned why they wanted to know her home address.

“I just felt intimidated,” she said.

Shane Belanger, a volunteer with Project Dirigo, said he was videotaping the petition process to be sure it was conducted legally, and that a lawyer would review the tapes afterward. When asked whether a lawyer would be watching all the footage from all polling locations, Belanger said he didn’t know how the process would work.

“This is all about making sure the petition process is fair and transparent,” he said.

GUN OWNER GROUPS INVOLVED

Initially, Belanger wouldn’t divulge his name to a reporter, but later confirmed it after a fellow Project Dirigo member revealed it.

Belanger is a founder of the Maine Open Carry Association, which works to protect the right to carry handguns openly. He also posts on the website for the Gun Owners of Maine, which says it’s a volunteer organization advocating for Second Amendment rights.

He wrote recently on the Gun Owners of Maine Facebook page about the need to fight the background check initiative because he sees it as a veiled attempt to implement gun registration. Officials with the Gun Owners of Maine did not respond to an email requesting comment Tuesday.

The gun control petition is being circulated by volunteers with Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, the state chapter of a group formed after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The group’s website said it supports the Second Amendment, but seeks changes in gun control laws to reduce gun violence in the U.S.

Beth Allen, organizing manager for the group, said it has more than 100 volunteers around the state collecting signatures to put the Maine Background Check Initiative on the November 2016 ballot. If successful, voters would be asked whether they support criminal background checks for all gun sales in the state, including private sales, except those between family members. The group would need more than 61,000 signatures from Maine residents to qualify for the 2016 ballot.

At East End Community School, Project Dirigo volunteer James Barron of Lewiston said people from all over the state were helping videotape the petition process at polling stations in Portland.

Unlike at the Woodfords Congressional Church polling place, Barron said there were no conflicts at the East End Community School.

“Not here,” he said. “Everything has been very civil.” Barron also is a gun-rights advocate, according to his Facebook page.

However, voter Joseph Medley said he objected.

“I support the Second Amendment protections, and there are plenty of people who could accurately testify that I safely exercised those rights as recently as this summer,” he said in an email. “However, I object to creepy little spies, for any reason, trying to intimidate other citizens from exercising any of their constitutional rights.”

NO LAW ON FILMING IN POLLING PLACE

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said he received complaints about Project Dirigo’s presence at polling places Tuesday morning and had consulted with the Maine Attorney General’s Office to confirm its legality.

Videotaping people after they have already voted is protected speech under the U.S. Constitution, he said, but videotaping people while they are signing a petition could have a chilling effect on the exercising of their rights, something he viewed as unconstitutional. However, after consulting with the attorney general, he was told there is no law regulating filming in the polling place and it is not a constitutional violation.

“I think it’s uncharted waters because we’ve never had to deal with it before,” Dunlap said.

State law does make it illegal to try to influence someone’s decision “regarding a candidate or question that is on the ballot for that election day” within 250 feet of a polling place.

Zach Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, said the free-speech rules for polling places differ from the rest of the public sphere.

“Courts have consistently upheld laws designed to protect voters from harassment or intimidation at polling places because of the long, tragic history of voter intimidation and suppression in this country,” Heiden said. “There’s a dangerous trend across the country of people and groups claiming they’re acting to protect the election process when in reality they are trying to intimidate or harass. We hope that trend is not making its way to Maine. … If political organizations want to photograph or videotape people voting, they should do so from outside the polling place.”

LEGAL, but ‘BOY, IS IT INTIMIDATING’

In a brochure, the group called the videotaping effort the Project Dirigo Petition Integrity Program, saying it was “a citizen effort to ensure the integrity of Maine’s citizen initiative petition circulation process. PIP stations observers to monitor the activities of petition circulators in order to ensure compliance with applicable law, and to preserve evidence of any violations observed during the signature solicitation process.”

The brochure goes on to state that the members do not interact with signature-gatherers except to ask their names and where they are registered to vote.

Signature-gatherers are not required to provide their names and addresses to the public, Dunlap said, and verifying that they are registered to vote in Maine, which is required by law, is the responsibility of the Secretary of State’s Office.

Roger Borelli Sr., district coordinator for the Portland City Clerk’s Office, said he had received complaints, but was told by city election officials it is legal to record the signature-gathering process as long as the recording doesn’t occur inside the voting area. He said that at one point a member of the group stood by a potential signer, directing the camera at either the signature-gatherer or the petition itself.

“Boy, is it intimidating,” Borelli said. “I know it’s legal, but where’s the borderline?”

DIFFERENT REACTIONS FROM VOTERS

Several voters said they were not bothered by the cameras or didn’t notice them, but others said they didn’t like their presence.

Sharon Bearor, who describes herself as “very supportive of gun control,” questioned the video cameras after signing a petition at Woodfords Congregational Church, saying it could be interpreted as a hostile or intimidating act.

“I don’t understand why he’s here,” Bearor said. “This should be a safe place to cast one’s vote or sign a petition.”

“I felt a little uncomfortable being videotaped when I signed that petition,” Willy Ritch, communications director for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said after voting at the church. “I wondered what they were going to do with the video.”

One Project Dirigo member at the church refused to give her name and would not discuss the group’s mission or provide a reporter with a printed brochure she had.

“There’s not much to tell. We came together based on a need, some concerned citizens,” she said.

It’s not clear how many members Project Dirigo has, or how many polling places were videotaped. A search of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices database indicated the group has not registered as a political action committee, which it would have to do if it were collecting or spending money to influence a campaign.

Staff Photographer Ben McCanna contributed to this report.