Dirty Politics in a Clean Politics State

National trends hit Maine. Are there cracks in its traditional political culture?

No on 1’s latest in a broader context:

UPDATED 11/5/11, 9:30 AM – SEE END OF POST 

Maine has long had what political scientist Daniel Elazar called a moralistic political culture. These states have high standards for politicians and are very troubled by even the hint of corruption. And they have very strong citizen participation, with the top rates of turnout, something that’s helped by voting rules that make it easier to vote.

Another aspect of moralistic cultures is that their people do not like any funny business in politics. They expect honest communications and will punish campaigns that do not follow those norms, no matter the political party.

Negative campaigning in these places usually hurts those who engage in it. Maine Democrats’ infamous China mailer against Eliot Culter likely hurt them and helped Mr. Cutler.

The referendum campaign on Election Day registration has featured reasoned arguments from both sides, but also a variety of less positive tactics from No on 1.

These included a misleading “study,” inaccurate criticisms of nationally-recognized research on efforts to reduce voting, claims of busloads of voters and double voting that turn out to be wholly unsupported, references to voter identification (which not on the ballot) and a cozening attempt to claim their effort is nonpartisan, supported by a coalition.

Perhaps those efforts were not working to persuade Maine voters to give up its nearly forty year practice of same-day voter registration, an electoral approach that is consonant with its traditional political culture.

So now we have something truly and very publicly deceptive:

It’s a No on 1 ad, which you can see at this link. Here’s a description:

Neither Election Day registration nor same-day voter registration is mentioned in the No on 1 ad. Instead, the ad cites “Maine’s ethics law,” a term not associated with and seemingly unrelated to the Legislature’s bill last session that attempted to repeal Election Day registration.

The narrator in the 15-second ad says, “Who should decide Maine’s elections, Mainers or outsiders from other states? Today, outside interests are trying to get rid of Maine’s ethics law. Keep Maine’s elections fair. Keep Maine’s elections decided by Mainers. Vote no on Question 1.”

I agree with what the spokesman for the Yes on 1 coalition says about the ad:

David Farmer, a spokesman for Protect Maine Votes, the coalition seeking to preserve Election Day registration, believes the ad is designed to make voters think that a yes vote will repeal Maine’s Clean Election law, a campaign finance system designed to limit the influence of outside money in Maine elections.

 

“From the looks of this ad, the opponents of voting rights are trying to confuse the elimination of same-day registration with the Maine Clean Election Act, which is overwhelmingly popular with voters,” Farmer said. “The irony is that many of the people who want to ban same-day voter registration also want to kill clean elections.”

Yes, this is an ad that’s misleading and confusing.

Even more, the source of its funding is hidden, as No on 1 has filed in such a way to avoid disclosure. A late filing has earned it a fine.

This follows on the heels of a new trend nationally — and in Maine.

In 2010, nationally raised and directed money flowed into states. One group’s “main tactic was to barrage the public airwaves with negative ads, much of it done at the tail end of the campaign season. GOP stalwarts such as Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie aggressively executed the battle plans through their consulting firms.”

And in Maine? As the Bangor Daily News points out:

This isn’t the first time late money has played a role in Maine elections recently.

 

In the final days before the November 2010 election, the national Republican State Leadership Committee spent $400,000 on negative mailers distributed to voters in five Maine Senate districts where Republicans were running close races.

Those expenditures were different because the lack of reporting denied Democratic candidates matching funds in time to use them.

The Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint that prompted ethics commission members to conclude that the expenditures violated the Maine Clean Elections Law.

The Republican State Leadership Committee was fined, but by then it didn’t matter.

If Maine still has a moralistic political culture and Maine people know about it, it will matter this time.

Time will tell.

_ _ _

UPDATE: Recent reports indicate that Maine’s opponents of election day registration state the ad is an out of state product.

Republican Party chairman Charlie Webster says a conservative group from out of state-which he did not name-produced the ad and paid for the television time to air it.

But that doesn’t mean they are distancing themselves from the deceptive message.

Lance Dutson of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center says the ad’s message is legitimate. . . When asked about the ad’s reference to election ethics instead of Election Day voter registration, Dutson said “Ethics laws are a kind of broad swath of what people talk about in terms of elections”

Yes, the head of a group that claims transparency is one of its main goals is defending undisclosed contributions and an ad from an undisclosed group — as well as the mischaracterization of a rule about when one should register as a matter of “ethics.”

Moreover, there is no compunction in defending an ad decrying outsiders purportedly influencing Maine elections that has been produced and funded and aired by unknown forces from outside — i.e, what real Mainers call From Away.

If this sort of thing is acceptable in Maine, the state’s political culture truly has changed.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.