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Controversy continues as some Maine towns gear up for GOP caucuses this weekend

Gerald Herbert | AP
Gerald Herbert | AP
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves at a campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz., Monday, Feb. 13, 2012.

EAST MACHIAS, Maine — The controversy that continues to plague efforts by Maine’s registered Republicans to indicate their presidential nominee preferences moves to Washington and Hancock counties on Saturday, Feb. 18.

A snowstorm prompted cancellation of Washington County’s caucus last weekend, and Hancock County’s two GOP caucuses were long-scheduled for Feb. 18. Consequently, the results of those events were not counted when the Maine Republican Party announced last week that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney received 194 more votes in the state’s presidential preference poll than Ron Paul, the congressman from Texas who was decreed the runner-up.

Other wrenches in the GOP vote-counting machine affected the results of caucuses in Waldo County and other areas, despite the fact that many had been held before the state party’s Feb. 11 deadline. In the meantime, some GOP caucuses around the state won’t be held until March.

State Senate President Kevin Raye, a Republican who lives in Washington County, said after meeting with Maine Republican Chairman Charlie Webster, it’s his understanding that the results of the Washington County caucus will be counted when the results of the nonbinding straw poll are tallied, as that caucus was delayed by weather. Whether the results of other caucuses held after Feb. 11 will be counted, Raye said, is an issue to be decided at a Republican State Committee meeting scheduled for March 10.

“The State Committee voted last fall on a process that said caucuses needed to be held between Feb. 4 and Feb. 11, and that’s what Washington County opted to do,” Raye said Friday. “Other counties chose to do it after that deadline, and I get the impression that Charlie Webster is not sympathetic.”

There has been a firestorm of protest targeted at Webster for how the situation is being handled. On Friday, Webster dismissed the entire caucus process as a “beauty contest” during a morning drive-time talk radio interview. That comment came on the heels of the Waldo County GOP Committee voting Tuesday to recommend that Webster face censure by the state GOP committee.

Webster also told the Washington, D.C.-based political journalism organization Politico that some of the errors made in counting votes were related to an email problem. Some of the emails sent by communities to state party headquarters to report results were flagged as spam in the party’s email system and not discovered until later.

“We’re correcting [the errors],” Webster told a Politico reporter. “There was a small change in the result, but it’s not a significant number, and it doesn’t affect the outcome.”

Calls placed to Webster on Friday by the Bangor Daily News were not returned. But just after 5 p.m., the Maine Republican Party released the new caucus tallies to date showing Romney’s lead over Paul had grown to 239 votes. The new numbers showed Romney with 2,269 votes and Paul with 2,030, followed by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania with 1,052 and former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia with 391.

Calls to Romney and Paul campaign contacts also were not returned Friday.

Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, said Friday that the controversy smacks of “much ado about nothing.” He feels caucus results should not have been made public until the entire process was completed in March. “This whole thing has been a very good argument for going to a primary,” he said, noting that one downside of a primary election would be the cost of staging such an election.

University of Maine political science professor Amy Fried said Friday that, while a primary might prove costly, she expects it would increase participation.

“This has been an incredibly messy situation,” she said of recent events. “I suspect that, if there were a statewide primary in Maine, more people would likely take part, and they could likely participate by absentee ballot. It takes time to go to a caucus and hang out there. Caucuses are good for what’s termed ‘party building’ — trying to get more people involved.”

Malaby lives in Hancock, just down the road from the site of Saturday’s caucus at the Hancock Grammar School, located off Route 1. Registered GOP voters from Fletcher’s Landing, Gouldsboro, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor are expected to participate in the event, which begins at 10 a.m.

Malaby said Friday he has no idea how the still-brewing controversy will affect turnout. “I’ve heard from people in Augusta who were involved in caucuses over previous weeks that they had great turnouts,” he said. “I’ve also heard from people this week who feel angry and disenchanted and tell me they won’t come out.”

Kathy Birdsall, the coordinator of the Hancock caucus, said she, too, doesn’t know how the controversy will affect attendance on Saturday. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, if my vote is not going to count, I’m not going to come,’” she said Friday. “I assure them that their vote will count, that the results will be reported.”

Another GOP caucus will be held Saturday in the Hancock County community of Eastbrook for registered Republicans from Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Franklin, Great Pond, Mariaville and Osborn. That event at the Eastbrook Town Office on Route 200 begins at 1 p.m.

In Washington County, Washington Academy on Route 191 in East Machias is making its cafeteria available for a 1:30 p.m. caucus. Head of School Judson McBrine said Friday that the facility could seat 300 people or more. Whether all those seats will be filled, he said, remains to be seen.

“I’m confident that, with a weekend of good weather, unlike last weekend, that we will have a good turnout,” Rep. David C. Burns, R-Whiting, said Friday. “And if the cafeteria fills up, there are spillover rooms at the Academy.”

As to the confusion surrounding tallying votes from previous caucuses, Burns said he’d be interested in taking a look at a statewide primary.

“As a voter, I’ve had concerns all along about this Republican process,” he said.

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