I wanted to blog about something other than politics today but I can’t ignore a local story gone viral.
Farmington’s own Charlie Webster, who runs a successful heating company, got into some hot water this week. Webster, who serves as the state Republican party Chair, made a claim that “dozens” of black people had registered to vote on election day at rural polling places where none of the poll workers knew them.
Immediately he was attacked for making a charge that seemed racist — black people voting in rural Maine? They must be from away! I think, though, it was more stupid than racist.
Here’s the context: Charlie Webster has long thought that Maine’s same day registration policy makes fraud likely. He once produced the names of 206 college students in Farmington who had registered on election day and had the Secretary of State Charlie Summers investigate. No wrong doing was found, though many students were sent semi-threatening letters warning them that they shouldn’t vote in a community if they had cars registered elsewhere or otherwise did not plan to become long term members of that community. Maine law has no such provisions, but Summers had to show some deference to his party Chair.
The Republicans grabbed control of both houses and the Governorship in 2010, and one of the first things they did was push through a law ending same day registration. Reports are that in a state legislature where individual independence usually trumps party loyalty, this was one issue where intense pressure was put on legislatures to vote in favor of ending the practice. This was a priority for Webster.
In Maine the people can overturn legislation through a referendum and that’s what happened. By an overwhelming margin of 60% to 40% Mainers voted to keep same day registration. Many on the right, buoyed by early polls showing support for the ending same day registration, thought having an off year (2011) vote would help them win. It did not.
If 2012 was like other years, about 50,000 people state wide registered on election day. They must have ID and a piece of mail addressed to them showing that they have a Maine address. Part of what irks Webster is that often college students in his town of Farmington (where I also live and teach) come and vote in elections even though those students probably don’t really consider Farmington home. His view: they should vote in their own localities, or if they are out of state, in the state in which their parents live.
That is a legitimate argument. To the extent that local representation in the state house in Augusta gets decided by students with no real “base” in Farmington, local residents may feel like their vote is being usurped by students from elsewhere corralled to vote by campus activists.
Counter arguments would note that these students live at least a good nine months in Farmington and add significantly to the local economy. The strongest counter is that it’s unlikely the campus determines election outcomes. Students tend not to vote, and many who do vote Republican. Republican candidates such as the State Rep Lance Harvell and State Senator Tom Saviello actively campaign on campus and have strong levels of student and faculty support, including from Democrats.
The point: same day registration irks Webster, he thinks it damages the electoral process and should be done away with. Yet dozens of black people going to rural Maine?
Most people would be skeptical. Busing black folk to rural locations would be an expensive and rather odd way to try to influence elections! \ The Sardine report did a nice satire on this, claiming “thousands of mysterious white people voted in Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Brunswick, Bangor, Brewer, South Portland, Waterville, Ellsworth, Sanford, Saco, Westbrook, Augusta, Orono, Belfast, Bath, Rumford and Newport.” An excerpt:
“It was an ingenious plan, really,” commented Maine Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant. ” We were only able to get a few hundred black people up from Massachusetts, and we had them voting in places like West Norridgewock, where they kind of stuck out. In retrospect, it wasn’t the smartest way to undermine the electoral process.”
Rumford town clerk Corinne McLaughlin said they were definitely some shady European-looking types registering on election day in her town. “I make a point of noticing and remembering all the white people in town, and there were definitely a few that I had not seen before,” she said.
After the Webster story went viral on Drudge, Politico, Talking Points Memo, Think Progress, and most political websites he backed off. He apologized for making it sound like he was disparaging a racial group, and withdrew his claim that he’d send out postcards to see if people really did live where they registered.
In the end, it was a bit absurd. I’m not sure how it went down, but I can imagine Webster hearing rumors about black people voting, taking them seriously and then blurting it out while being interviewed. He hates same day registration and thus is predisposed to believe stories that show it to enable fraud.
Here in rural Maine there are not many black people. Therefore we sometimes forget to think about how what we say might sound. Heck, my six year old son in looking at a picture of Barack Obama once said, “dad, do you have to have black skin to be able to become President?” I suspect Webster was so focused on the issue of same day registration fraud that it simply went over his head just how racially charged his claim was.
So in the end it was just a minor gaffe that gave this part of the country some national attention for a day or two. It wasn’t even the worst gaffe of the week – that honor belonged to Mitt Romney who channeled his 47% video self to decry how Obama won by “giving gifts” to various demographic groups. Republicans reacted to that by distancing themselves from Romney even faster than Maine Republicans fled Webster.
I’ll take Webster at his word that he didn’t mean to focus on race and is genuinely sorry about how careless his comments were. The gotcha gaffe game is a poor excuse for political discourse in any event. And as much as I hate to admit it, I think it’s sort of fun when something silly puts Maine and especially my part of Maine in the national spotlight.