ACLU of Maine and Brennan Center Request Investigation of Maine Republican Chair’s Voter Intimidation Plans
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PORTLAND—Following reports that Charles Webster, Chair of the Maine Republican Party, plans to use tactics that could harass and intimidate African-American voters, the ACLU of Maine and the Brennan Center for Justice today formally requested an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division.
On November 13, 2012, Mr. Webster announced plans to launch an “investigation” of newly registered African-American voters. Two days later, Webster apologized for the announcement, but reaffirmed his intention to carry out his “voter caging” plan, which would attempt to use undeliverable mail as evidence of improper registration.
The ACLU of Maine and the Brennan Center are concerned that Webster’s intended “investigation” violates the federal Voting Rights Act and National Voter Registration Act. The Voting Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division is responsible for enforcing both statutes.
“Nobody deserves to be harassed or intimidated simply because they attempt to exercise the fundamental constitutional right to vote,” said Zachary Heiden, Legal Director of the ACLU of Maine. “We have laws to prevent exactly this behavior, and we want to see those laws enforced.”
In an interview posted online on Tuesday November 13, 2012 on WCSH Portland, Webster made the following statement: “In some parts of rural Maine, there were dozens, dozens of black people who came in and voted on Election Day. Everybody has a right to vote, but nobody in the towns knows anyone who's black. How did that happen? I don't know. We're going to find out." The story became national news.
Later in the week, after Webster issued a putative apology, he recommitted to engaging in a self-funded vigilante “voter caging” operation designed to harass and intimidate newly registered voters: “I’ll buy a thousand postcards, I’ll mail them out, and we’ll find out whether any come back.”
Voter caging is not new, and courts across the country have declared it to be illegal, especially when (as here) the practice is racially-motivated.
“Across the country, we have seen individuals and groups use all sorts of tactics to make it harder for people to vote,” said Lee Rowland, Counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice. “Racially-motivated voter harassment is not only illegal, it is also inconsistent with America’s founding values. We must keep elections free, fair, and accessible for all.”
Voter caging is also unreliable, because voter rolls often have typographical errors, individuals change addresses, individuals register to vote with physical addresses not mailing addresses, individuals may live at non-traditional addresses, voters may be temporarily away from their residence, the postal service may make mistakes, and street names may have changed. These reasons led to the prohibition on the use of unreturned mail to challenge voter registrations under the National Voter Registration Act.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits actual and attempted intimidation, threats, and coercion aimed at interfering with the right to vote. That law was passed specifically to protect against racially-motivated voter intimidation, though it has been applied to other forms of voter harassment as well.
In 2011, Mr. Webster was instrumental in pressuring the Maine Secretary of State to investigate student voters. Though that investigation uncovered no wrongdoing, the students involved never received an apology. This time, the Secretary of State’s office has distanced itself from Webster, noting that it had not heard any complaints about problems on election day.