AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap asserted Monday that allegations of possible voter and identity fraud made last week by current Secretary of State Charlie Summers were resolved several years ago, shortly after they first surfaced.
Dunlap said Summers would have learned that fact had he simply called him before gathering reporters and television cameras last Thursday to announce a broad investigation.
“I wish he had talked to me first,” Dunlap said in an interview Monday. “A little bit of homework prior to the press conference might have canceled the press conference.”
During that event, Summers referenced as the basis for his investigation a July 1 conversation with a Bureau of Motor Vehicles employee who expressed concerns about “noncitizens” trying to register to vote.
The employee told Summers that she had brought her concerns to the Secretary of State’s Office under previous administrations and was told to disregard the activity. She also said she was advised to destroy evidence she had collected to support those claims.
Even though Dunlap was not mentioned by Summers specifically, the former secretary recognized the narrative.
Dunlap said he had virtually the same conversation with the same employee in December 2004, about a month before he was officially sworn in as secretary of state.
Here is Dunlap’s version of the events:
The woman, a longtime Bureau of Motor Vehicles employee, came to Dunlap with concerns about identity security. Specifically, she wanted to understand how it was possible for noncitizens or illegal immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. She also wanted to see Maine laws strengthened to guard against it.
Dunlap explained to the woman that there was a clear distinction between state authority and federal authority as it related to identity security, but he encouraged her to keep fighting the issue. The woman’s concerns eventually led to the submission and passage of legislation in 2005 that made it difficult for illegal aliens to get driver’s licenses, but election or voter fraud was never part of that discussion, he said.
“Her concerns had nothing to do with election security. It was about making sure terrorists couldn’t get driver’s licenses or other identification,” Dunlap said.
As for the allegations that the employee was ordered to shred or otherwise destroy documents, Dunlap said the woman had been gathering information from applicants she suspected were illegal and keeping it in hopes that it might prove criminal activity.
Before Dunlap’s election as Secretary of State, the employee was asked to turn over or destroy the information she had collected because she was not authorized to keep it.
After Summers’ announcement last week, Dunlap said he called the Bureau of Motor Vehicles employee directly. She told him that she was upset with Summers’ characterization of her concerns, and that she since has asked Summers to clarify the substance of their conversation. Neither Summers nor Dunlap would identify the employee or say whether she still works at the bureau.
Asked to explain Dunlap’s version of events, Summers said Monday that he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
“I’m not trying to be difficult to deal with,” he said. “I’m sure people will decide whatever, but we have an investigation and that is what needs to play out.”
Summers did confirm that he did not contact Dunlap or any other previous secretaries of state before his press conference and said that he has no plans to do so.
The backdrop of the discussion is Election Day voter registration, something that has become a political hot potato in Maine and across the country.
Earlier this year, Maine’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed LD 1376, which among other changes to the elections process bans the state’s 38-year-old practice of allowing voters to register on Election Day.
The debate before LD 1376’s passage was among the most contentious of the 125th Legislature and fell sharply along party lines.
After Gov. Paul Lepage signed the bill into law, a coalition of Democratic groups led by the Maine People’s Alliance and the League of Women Voters launched a people’s veto effort to overturn the law.
That group needs to gather 57,000 signatures by Aug. 9 to force a statewide vote in November, although if that deadline is not met, there also is the option of a June 2012 vote.
Supporters of LD 1376, including Summers, have said the change in law was meant to ease the burden on municipal election clerks and also to bring more integrity to Maine’s elections.
Since the law passed and the people’s veto was launched, some Republicans have attempted to tie same-day voter registration to voter fraud.
Three days before Summers’ press conference, Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster held his own event in Augusta to reveal a list of 206 out-of-state college students, many of whom he believed voted fraudulently in 2010.
Webster delivered that list to Summers and called for an investigation to see whether those students had established residency in Maine or whether they had voted twice, once in Maine and once in their home states.
Summers said last week that his office and the Attorney General’s Office would fold the claims made by Webster into a broader investigation involving the charge levied by the BMV employee.
The secretary of state also said his investigation was not related to same-day voter registration, but many Democrats believe that point has been lost in the discussion.
Dunlap said even though he believes the claims were remedied, he doesn’t object to a new investigation. He does, however, object to Summers announcing the investigation in such a public way.
In his five-plus years as secretary of state, Dunlap said he never called a press conference to announce the beginning of an investigation.
“You don’t do the press conference until you have an indictment, an arrest or a change in hand,” he said. “From all I can discern, he had one conversation with one individual about changes in policy that happened five, six, seven years ago and four weeks later had a press conference about it.”
Dunlap also objected to the timing.
Recently, Dunlap, a Democrat, has been rumored as a challenger to U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, who is up for re-election in 2012. Summers, a Republican, served as Snowe’s state director for 10 years.
“I have a hard time seeing past the politics,” Dunlap said. “That’s just a little too convenient.”
As for GOP Chairman Webster’s complaints of voter fraud, Dunlap maintained that it never was a big problem during his time.
“I’ve told Charlie Webster, ‘You never brought it to me.’ Nobody ever called my office,” he said. “It wasn’t until after the people’s veto came into play that people started to talk about fraud.”
Dunlap said Webster’s most recent claims — that college Republicans at the University of Maine-Farmington rented university buses and then parked them so they could not be used to assist voters — amounts to voter suppression.
Summers could not provide a timeline for his investigation, but said he would release the findings as soon as he was able.