AUGUSTA, Maine — Outgoing GOP Chairman Charlie Webster said Thursday he still believes there is ample evidence of voter irregularity in the Nov. 6 election, but he regrets his reference on Tuesday to black voters.
In a statement issued late Thursday by the Maine Republican Party, Webster said it was “my intention to talk not about race, but about perceived voting irregularities. However, my comments were made without proof of wrongdoing and had the unintended consequence of casting aspersions on an entire group of Americans. For that, I am truly sorry.”
Despite that regret, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is concerned Webster may have come close to violating federal laws protecting minority voters.
Earlier this week, Webster said during an interview with WCSH-TV that “dozens of black people” registered to vote in several small Maine towns on Election Day. Those people were unfamiliar to election clerks and others at the polls in those towns, he maintained, suggesting that they may not actually live in those communities.
He said at that time he planned to send out thousands of postcards to the addresses of those who recently registered to vote, believing that if they were fraudulent, the postcards would come back as undeliverable by the postal service, thereby providing evidence for his accusations.
But after the controversy that followed his comments, Webster said Thursday he would not send the postcards.
Secretary of State Charlie Summers was unavailable to comment on Webster’s accusations Thursday morning, but Barbara Redmond, the deputy secretary of state, said the office had not looked into them and had no plans to do so.
“Secretary Summers was shocked when he heard what was said,” she said, because virtually no complaints or concerns had been raised by municipal clerks in the Nov. 6 election.
Zach Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine, said his organization sees serious red flags in Webster’s comments.
“We’re enormously concerned about this,” he said Thursday. “He’s violated — or is about to violate — federal law.” Specifically, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits harassment or intimidation of voters. Courts have generally understood the law to cover racially motivated harassment and intimidation, Heiden said.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “Motor Voter Act,” prohibits voter “caging,” Heiden said, in which efforts are made to entrap voters. Sending postcards to addresses of newly registered voters to see which are returned is a ploy used elsewhere, he said.
“People move,” Heiden said, and voters are able to use homeless shelters and even physical locations such as under a bridge as their residence under voting law. A returned postcard is “not enough to strip a voter registration,” he said.
“This is an embarrassment for the state of Maine and for our election system, which works very well,” Heiden said.
Lance Dutson, former director of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, said Thursday that while Webster “has done a great job and a great service for the Republican Party,” his remarks were “shocking.”
“I’m a proud Republican,” Dutson said, “and I don’t want people to think I think like that. It cast a bad shadow not only on Republicans but on Maine.”
Joe Perry of Searsport, active with the Bangor chapter of the NAACP and its past president, said Thursday that Webster’s remarks “smacked of racism.”
“Sure, there are people of color, but there are far more white. Why don’t you pick on whites?” he asked. Perry also objected to the lack of specifics in the claims. “This is the way it is with Republicans,” he said.
In a telephone interview Thursday morning, Webster stressed that he did not say there had been voter fraud, but rather wanted the anecdotal evidence investigated.
He cited the high number of new voter registrations in Bangor on Election Day as possible evidence of voter irregularity. He said he learned that 2,000 new voters registered that day. The city clerk’s office reported that 1,750 first-time voters registered on Nov. 6.
Webster, who lives in Farmington, home to the University of Maine at Farmington, repeated what has been a refrain about college students voting in the towns where they attend school.
“Why do we allow these people in and influence our local elections?” he said. College students do not register their cars in the town where they attend school, nor do they change the address on their driver’s license, though state law requires doing so within a month of changing address, he said.
Webster said these problems will be addressed by the next party chairman. His term expires Dec. 1, and Webster has said he will not seek to continue in the post. He does believe a petition drive to put a voter ID law on the books is a logical next step.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage’s office said the governor would not comment on the matter.