ACLU asks Justice Department for investigation into Charlie Webster

Posted Nov. 30, 2012, at 10:32 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 30, 2012, at 12:17 p.m.
Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster at the Maine Republican Convention in May.
Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster at the Maine Republican Convention in May. Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Brennan Center for Justice announced Friday that they have asked the U.S Department of Justice’s civil rights division to investigate outgoing Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster.

The two parties mailed and emailed their request to the Department of Justice on Friday, according to Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine.

On Nov. 13, Webster told WCSH-TV interviewer Don Carrigan that he planned to investigate claims that “dozens of black people” who were unfamiliar to municipal officials voted Nov. 6 in rural Maine towns. The following day, Webster told the Bangor Daily News that he planned to mail postcards to voters who registered on Election Day to see how many would be returned as undeliverable. Webster said the effort would indicate whether his belief that widespread voter fraud occurs in Maine was credible.

On Nov. 15, Webster issued an apology. In a statement released that day 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.”

In a phone interview Friday, his last full day as party chairman, Webster said he has not mailed out any postcards to voters who registered on Election Day. If he decides to do so, it will be as a private citizen. Initially, Webster said he would use Maine State Republican Committee funds to pay for the mailing, which he reiterated would go to all new voters, not just to those of a particular race.

“I haven’t decided to send the cards out,” he said Friday. “If I did such a thing, they would only go to new voters. I’m not sure I want to do it.”

Heiden wants a more certain response. “The correct answer for him is to say, ‘I’m absolutely not going to do this because it violates people’s rights and is prohibited under federal election law,’” Heiden said by phone.

The ACLU and Brennan Center described Webster’s proposed mailing as “voter caging,” which past court rulings have deemed illegal. Voter caging involves “sending mass direct mailings to registered voters by nonforwardable mail, then compiling lists of voters, called ‘caging lists,’ from the returned mail in order to formally challenge their right to vote on that basis alone,” according to Project Vote.

“The ACLU of Maine and the Brennan Center are concerned that Webster’s intended ‘investigation’ violates the federal Voting Rights Act and National Voter Registration Act,” a joint release from the two groups states.

“Across the country, we have seen individuals and groups use all sorts of tactics to make it harder for people to vote,” said Lee Rowland, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice. “Racially motivated voter harassment is not only illegal, it is also inconsistent with America’s founding values. We must keep elections free, fair and accessible for all.”

The parties address the racial aspect of Webster’s statements in their request for an investigation.

“Mr. Webster’s comments suggest that the very fact that African-Americans are voting in rural Maine is a problem, and constitutes evidence of electoral impropriety,” states the letter addressed to Chris Herren, chief of the Department of Justice’s voting section. “These public comments were made, and reiterated, in spite of the assurances of Maine secretary of state’s office that there were ‘no instances of fraud’ in the November 2012 statewide election. As such, the only possible purpose for this planned ‘investigation’ is the public harassment and intimidation of Maine’s newly registered voters — who have attracted Mr. Webster’s attention by the sole virtue of their race.”

Webster said neither group attempted to contact him prior to announcing that they would seek the federal investigation.

Heiden said Friday that the ACLU mailed Webster a letter two weeks ago but has not received a response.

“This is the same group that sued the Boy Scouts,” Webster said of the ACLU. “I don’t think there’s any law against thanking people to vote. I am not worried about their intimidation tactics.”

Previously, Webster said the postcards would include a photograph of the State House and a note of thanks for voting.

“Today’s letter has one purpose and one purpose only: to prevent the harassment and intimidation of voters in Maine by Charlie Webster and anybody else,” Heiden said.

Webster, who lives in Farmington, regularly alleged voter fraud throughout his tenure at the helm of the Maine Republican Party. In July 2011, he produced a list of 206 college students from out of state as grounds for a voter fraud investigation by the Maine secretary of state’s office. In September 2011, Secretary of State Charlie Summers reported that investigators turned up no fraud resulting from Webster’s list.

In June 2011, Webster also accused Democrats of stealing elections and busing people to the polls to sway outcomes. No charges resulted from that allegation.

The Maine State Republican Committee will meet Saturday in Augusta to select a successor to Webster, who announced two days after this year’s election, in which the GOP lost majorities in the Legislature and all three federal elections, that he would not seek a new term as party chairman.

Departing state Reps. Richard Cebra of Naples and Beth O’Connor of Berwick have announced their candidacies to succeed Webster.

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