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Shame on Webster, shame on GOP

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Voting stickers decorate a table in the polling exit area at the Bangor Civic Center as voters turned out for Maine's U.S. Senate and 1st and 2nd District primaries Tuesday morning, June 12, 2012.


Maine and the nation have a growing percentage of minority voters, and failing to recognize their needs could mean a slow decline for the Republican Party. Every four years, the nonwhite portion of the country’s electorate increases by 2 percent. In 30 years, nonwhites are set to outnumber whites. Nationally, between 2008 and 2011 any gains Republican made were only among white voters, according to the Pew Research Center. These facts alone should cause the GOP to figure out how to broaden its base.

So far, despite attempts by some, the party has not helped itself. One example arose this week when outgoing Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster returned to voter-fraud conspiracies and made shameful comments — that he acknowledged cast “aspersions on an entire group of Americans” — that “dozens of black people” who were unfamiliar to municipal officials may have voted on Nov. 6 in rural Maine towns. Even though he later apologized, his focus on race and supposed voter fraud is indicative of a larger problem within the party. Webster may have retracted his remarks about African-Americans, but he continued to push for restrictions on voters: He said the state should require voter IDs and continued to question why college students are allowed to cast ballots in the town where they get their education.

Hasn’t this country determined that focusing on supposed voter fraud is a waste of time and resources and pushes away some of the very voters the GOP needs? After the Republican National Lawyers Association made allegations about several hundred cases of voter impersonation fraud, a reporting project called News21 investigated each case. It found no evidence of fraud. The reporters went on to request information from every state about every reported case of alleged election fraud. They found 10 related to impersonation during the last decade, making the frequency of poll impersonation one in 15 million.

The harm of voter ID laws appears to outweigh the benefit. Many studies show that people of color, the poor and the elderly possess IDs at much lower rates than whites. The Brennan Center for Justice states that requiring voter IDs disenfranchises up to 10 percent of eligible voters. Republican leaders, such as Pennsylvania GOP House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, have admitted publicly that voter ID laws will help Republicans.

Maine is familiar with voter fraud allegations and attempts to make voting more difficult. In June 2011, Gov. Paul LePage signed a law to ban same-day voter registration. A citizen’s veto referendum overturned the measure in November 2011, exhibiting state residents’ desire to preserve their right to register to vote on Election Day. In a separate but related matter, in July 2011, Webster produced a list of 206 names of college students who he said should be investigated for voter fraud. An investigation revealed no evidence of fraud.

Yet, this week Maine found itself again forced to face claims about a problem that doesn’t really exist. Municipal workers did not make complaints to the Office of the Secretary of State, but Webster still suggested that the high number of new voter registrations in Bangor was possible evidence of voter irregularities. He also questioned why Maine allows college students to vote in the towns where they attend school. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that college students can register to vote using a dormitory address).

The Republican Party — in Maine and the country — must realize that pursuing voter suppression tactics is not helping their cause. This is not the time to try to block votes. This is the time to try to win over pockets of the Democratic Party and a greater share of moderate, independent voters. Of course, many Republicans recognize this. The candidates for Maine Legislature leadership positions this week emphasized the importance of expanding the party and appealing to more women and young people. But they must back up their words with action.

One big change must be to genuinely be more welcoming on a broad scale, which requires a change of heart. There are policy areas where Republicans may be able to succeed, too. In Maine, it might involve taking back the message about the benefits of charter schools. Nationally, it could involve proposing an immigration solution that ensures businesses have access to the workers they need, while keeping borders secure.

It is clearly unacceptable for the leader of any political party to make allegations about black voters without proof. “Mr. Webster’s unsubstantiated and unverifiable allegations of voter fraud based upon race are offensive and insulting, not only to the members of Maine’s African-American community, but to all citizens of Maine,” said Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Maine. “His statements reveal what voters have known through this past election cycle: that racism is at the heart of the voter suppression movement.”

Instead of putting energy into allegations of voter fraud and trying to put out public relations fires caused by leadership, the party would do better to figure out how to be more inclusive. By failing to do so, the GOP only swindles itself.

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