One of the more important tasks of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices is to protect our elections by rooting out and punishing illegal campaign activity.

But what happens when the people responsible for such skullduggery are nowhere to be found?

“It’s not common, but it has happened,” Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, said in a telephone interview.

Enter Public Opinion Research, an entity that gives new meaning to the word “shadowy.” In at least seven state Senate districts throughout Maine, someone using that name is hard at work turning voters against Democratic candidates and toward their Republican opponents – all under the guise of a “poll” that is in reality no such thing.

It’s called, in political parlance, a “push poll.” It looks and sounds at first like an above-board, objective opinion survey but quickly devolves into questions that trash one candidate or extol the virtues of another. In this case, it does both.

Take Senate District 13, where Rep. Chloe Maxmin, a Democrat from Nobleboro, is trying to unseat Sen. Dana Dow from Waldoboro, who serves as Republican leader of the Maine Senate. In recent weeks, voters in the district have reported receiving unsolicited telephone recordings or text messages that boil down to two questions.

The first: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Dana L. Dow if you knew that he is a small business owner known for his ability to bring consensus and a pragmatic approach to problem solving and that he’s led Maine’s response to COVID-19 ensuring that our businesses stay afloat, and families remain safe and healthy?”

The second: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Chloe Maxmin if you knew that she is in lockstep with radical liberals who want to bring burdensome California and New York policies to Maine that would be devastating for Maine businesses and families?”

Don’t bother answering – the goal here is not to gather information. Rather, it’s to plant a seed in voters’ minds that the push pollsters hope will blossom into votes for Dow come Nov. 3.

Dow, for the record, has denied any involvement in the scheme. So has the Maine Republican Party, whose executive director, Jason Savage, said in an email Thursday, “We don’t have any knowledge of, or involvement in, the matter in question, of Public Opinion Research, or any actions they have taken.”

So, who is Public Opinion Research?

After Maxmin and Chris Johnson, chairman of the Lincoln County Democratic Committee, filed a complaint with the ethics commission on Sept. 15, the commission’s staff launched a preliminary investigation.

They quickly determined that both the telephone calls and the text messages, which include links to an online survey, appear to run afoul of Maine law because neither contains a required disclaimer naming the person who paid for the activity and whether it was authorized by a candidate. The staff also found that whoever executed the poll may have illegally neglected to register as a political action committee and file campaign expenditure reports.

As for whether the activity constitutes an illegal push poll, the staff reported that it’s too soon to tell. They found that the telephone and text messages appear to meet three of Maine’s five statutory criteria for identifying an illegal push poll – selective targeting of recipients, failure to gather specific demographic information, and clear evidence that it’s trying to sway or suppress votes.

But the staff also said it’s too soon to tell whether the poll crosses the two other lines – no collection or tabulation of the survey results, and the prefacing of a question about a candidate with an untrue statement about that person.

Wayne told the commission that the staff does not consider it part of “our job as state officials to work extra hard to investigate speech that people think is false or misleading. The First Amendment does protect false or misleading speech.”

Thus, the question remains open as to whether claiming Maxmin is “in lockstep with radical liberals” is a false statement or simply an off-the-wall opinion.

“But we do think that the commission has a very important role in enforcing the disclosure requirements,” Wayne said. “People deserve to know who is paying for a paid activity so that they can evaluate what’s the reliability of the communication they’re receiving.”

Which brings us back to the central question: Who is behind Public Opinion Research?

The recorded telephone messages include a callback number the staff found to be a “dead end.” As for tracking down Public Opinion Research, the staff report noted, “The sponsors of the communications have chosen a generic-sounding name that sounds like it could be an opinion survey firm or nonprofit organization, but it seems to have no significant online presence.”

And, noting that the same activity turned up in August amid a Republican primary election in Tennessee, the staff speculated, “It is possible that the sponsor is an interest group or partisan organization based outside of Maine.”

Imagine that. Secretive outside forces trying to influence Maine elections.

Contacted this week, Maxmin said this is about more than just her candidacy.

“On behalf of voters, we deserve free and fair elections here in Maine,” she said. “And push polling of any sort doesn’t belong in our elections.”

Her use of the plural is well chosen. According to Julia Brown, executive director of the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, polls virtually identical to the one in District 13 have also been reported so far in Senate Districts 7, 11, 14, 16, 20 and 30. All of them bad-mouth the Democratic candidate and deify the Republican.

One thing that sets these polls apart from similar dirty tricks in the past, Brown noted, is that the text messages include a link to SurveyMonkey.com, where recipients find the actual poll. Thus, she said, “this is the first opportunity, possibly ever, for us to take screen shots and have proof of how widespread this type of poll is.”

At the same time, the links offer a possible foothold for investigators. The ethics commission’s unanimous vote on Wednesday to authorize a full investigation means the staff can now subpoena SurveyMonkey for information on who created the various online polls.

Will it work? Maybe, although it’s unlikely the mystery will be solved by Election Day.

“We’ll see where it goes. We can only try – that’s the best we can do,” commission Chairman William A. Lee III concluded after the vote. “Some of these outfits or whatever you want to call them … can be hard to track.”

Meanwhile, should this monkey business find its way to a phone near you, there is another option.

Before you hang up, tell them Maine is coming after them.


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