Archive for November 7th, 2011

Dirty Politics

UPDATE:  Yes on 1 is winning handily, at about 60% to 40% with half the returns in, and the race has been called.  Same day registration stays in Maine, and the dishonest and misleading ad campaign was a failure!

Watch this ad and try to guess what it’s about.    You might think that some nefarious outside force is trying to weaken Maine’s ethics laws, and that it’s important to vote “no” on question one to protect them.

In actuality the ad is funded by an out of state group, we’re not sure who, and it’s about an effort to bring back Maine’s same day voter registration.   40 years ago in a bi-partisan effort Maine approved same day voter registration which has helped Maine consistently have some of the highest voter turn out rates in the country.   There has never been any proof that this has caused fraud or led to harm in the system.

Republicans have often scapegoated same day registration as an excuse for not winning more in Maine.   There is no reason to believe that the case — same day registration is usually very modest in number, and not enough to turn around elections.  Moreover, it does not appear that any party benefits more from the practice.   Yet it’s been used as a kind of boogey man by the right for awhile.

This year state GOP chair Charlie Webster claimed that there was massive fraud, pointing to 200 out of state students at UMF who voted in 2008.   Yet these were mostly students who registered weeks before the election, there was no evidence of wrong doing, and a large chunk of these were Republican.   It was simply a fishing trip.   The Republican Secretary of State, however, sent letters to these students saying that unless they made sure their cars were registered in Maine they should drop their voter registration — including a card to help them do so.   This was raw voter intimidation, with no basis in Maine law.

The Republicans, who came to power in 2010 in both the Maine legislature and Governorship overturned same day registration, bowing to unproven (and very dubious) claims that it enhanced fraud.   This was somewhat of an anomaly.   In other issues such as right to work laws, public labor unions, redistricting and the like the GOP backed off the most extreme measures.   Maine Republicans are not extremists and have for the most part chosen a pragmatic path.   They also know that the 2010 election was itself outside the norm — to be re-elected they’ll need to show that they didn’t do anything too rash and ideologically extreme.

But same day voting registration became the big symbolic issue reflecting GOP power.   And, unsurprisingly though with haste few expected, signatures were gathered for a “people’s veto” of the law — a referendum by the people to overturn the law.   Conservatives narrowly won a similar referendum on gay marriage a few years ago after the Maine legislature (then in Democratic hands) approved gay marriage.

The people’s veto is another reason politicians tend towards pragmatism.  Not only might they be hurt if they take an extreme position, but even if their vote passes whatever measure is up, it can be overturned by the public.   Almost any extremely controversial issue will generate efforts to launch a peoples’ veto.

In this case, early polls showed support for question 1 — the measure to overturn the legislature’s act and bring back same day registration.   51% indicated they’d vote “yes,” only 41% said “no.”    The backers are motivated and well organized, leading most pundits to predict that question one will pass.

That is the context within which this late ad appeared.  I learned about it first in Amy Fried’s blog Pollways.   Last night while watching Pan Am on ABC it aired twice within the same commercial break, with one commercial in between each showing (I’m not sure if that was intentional to try to quickly reinforce the message or just how the station filled its commercial time slots).

Maine traditionally does not like dirty politics or outside interests interfering in Maine’s elections.   Knowing that, the ad tells Mainers not to let “outsiders” get ride of Maine’s ” election ethics law.”   Yet the ad is from outsiders and is dishonest — no “ethics law” is up for a vote; the question is whether same day registration will be brought back or not.

I doubt this will work, but the fact such tactics are used, allowed and potentially effective is disturbing.  Yes, it’s a side effect of having the most libertarian free speech laws in the world, and overall that’s a good thing.   But this requires the public to educate itself before voting or getting swayed by such ads.  If somehow “no” wins, nobody will know for sure if this deceptive ad was the cause.   The pre-vote polling is weeks old and there was only one poll.   However, to those who put the ad up it would seem to validate their decision to ignore truth and simply try to emotionally manipulate the voters.

For that reason I hope not only that “yes” wins on question one, but that it wins big — and people draw the conclusion that the dishonest ad hurt rather than helped the cause.