AUGUSTA — The videotaping of petitioners at polling places Tuesday was an unusual occurrence in Maine that marked a new front in the conflict over gun control and efforts to set public policy on guns and other issues at the ballot box.

A state senator who is a former secretary of state said Wednesday that he is considering proposing legislation that would regulate videotaping of referendum petition circulators at Maine polling places.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said he is concerned that the videotaping crossed a “new frontier” by intimidating voters or people signing referendum petitions. Voters at several Portland polling places objected Tuesday to being videotaped as they signed a petition that would expand background checks on gun sales.

If the petitioners are successful, the proposal would be put before voters in 2016.

Diamond said he had not yet drafted a bill. However, he planned to meet with Secretary of State Matt Dunlap this week to discuss legislation. Dunlap told the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday that the videotaping wasn’t illegal, but he expressed concern that it could have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to sign petitions or vote.

“This is a new phenomenon in Maine, at least as long as I’ve been around,” Diamond said. “My concern is that this practice will either intimidate voters or lead to a confrontation.”

Project Dirigo, the group that organized the videotaping, defended its actions in an unsigned email sent Wednesday night, saying it was ensuring that signatures were gathered properly.

“We did not video ‘voters.’ Those interacting with signature gatherers may, or may not have voted, or been entitled to vote. We don’t care about voting,” the email said. “We care about the integrity of the signature-gathering process – especially when rich interests from other states seek, for the second time in as many years, to push an outside agenda with rich people’s money.”

Maine Moms Demand Action is the group behind the background check referendum. The group is the state chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, which is affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, a group created by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a national gun control advocate.

The two groups merged last year, with Bloomberg vowing to commit $50 million to candidates who support gun control and for launching ballot initiatives in several states, including Maine.

Bloomberg’s efforts face opposition from the National Rifle Association, as well as other groups, including the Gun Owners of Maine, which supported a bill that removed the permit requirement to carry a concealed handgun. The bill became law despite the opposition of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund.

“This is all about making sure the petition process is fair and transparent,” Project Dirigo member Shane Belanger said Tuesday at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, where he was videotaping petitioners.

The signature-gathering process for referendums has frequently been a topic of controversy. In 2009, Republican lawmakers trying to overturn a new tax reform law accused Democratic lawmakers of harassing people who were gathering petition signatures around Maine.

David Trahan, a former Republican state senator who now heads the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, led an effort last year to reform the signature-gathering process. He said he was motivated by the unlawful practices of out-of-state signature gatherers hired by the Humane Society of the United States, the group behind two unsuccessful referendums that opposed bear baiting by hunters.

Trahan’s proposal, which became law in May, is designed to ensure that Maine residents, not out-of-state residents, are circulating petitions. Trahan asserted that the Humane Society petition circulators had violated the residency requirement while gathering signatures for the 2014 bear-baiting referendum, a charge that the organization’s officials denied.

Dunlap, the secretary of state, said the videotaping of petition circulators is new in Maine. He said he received complaints about Project Dirigo on Tuesday morning and consulted with the Office of the Attorney General to determine 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.

At least seven states – Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas – expressly prohibit the use of photographic and recording equipment inside polling places, according to the Digital Media Law Project. However, there appear to be few state laws that specifically address videotaping signature gathering, which can take place at polling places or in public areas.

Diamond’s proposed legislation would have to clear procedural hurdles to be considered when the Legislature reconvenes in January. He would be required to petition the Legislative Council to accept an after-deadline bill. The 10-member council comprises five Democrats and five Republicans. It would require a majority vote to accept a bill if Diamond submits one.

Diamond was confident that he could get the votes.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, issued a statement expressing support for the issue to be debated next session.

“We have serious concerns anytime voters feel intimidated at the polls,” Eves said. “We hope and expect that the Legislature will take action this session.”

Newport Republican Rep. Kenneth Fredette, the House minority leader who sits on the council, said in a written statement that he didn’t think the videotaping issue was pressing.

“This is an issue that we can look into at a later date, but I don’t think it rises to the level of ’emergency legislation’ as it is defined in the Constitution,” Fredette said. “As a member of the Legislative Council, it’s probably not a bill I’m inclined to vote in favor of in terms of allowing it in for the second session.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.