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Maine Democratic Party v. Secretary of State

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Maine Democratic Party v. Secretary of State is an ultimately successful lawsuit filed in June 2008 by the Maine Democratic Party against the Maine Secretary of State seeking to order the Secretary of State (Democrat Matthew Dunlap) to remove the name of independent U.S. Senate candidate Herb Hoffman from the ballot.[1][2][3]

The case is also known as Knutson v. Department of the Secretary of State.[4]

The Democratic Party lost the case in Maine Superior Court and then appealed to the Maine Supreme Court. The hearing was held on July 24 and on July 28, the state's high court tossed Hoffman's name from the ballot.[5][6]

Candidate Hoffman submitted nominating petitions signed by more than the 4,000 threshold to qualify for the ballot and Dunlap certified his name for ballot placement. Subsequently, representatives of the Maine Democrats conducted an extensive signature review[7] seeking to find signatures they could invalidate so they could make the case that Hoffman's name shouldn't appear on the ballot. The source of their concern appears to be the fear that Hoffman, a pro-peace candidate, will take votes away from their U.S. Senate candidate, Tom Allen, possibly tipping the November senate race toward Republican incumbent U.S. Senator Susan Collins.

Basis for the signature challenge

The issues the Democratic Party says it found when they reviewed the signatures were:

  • Some people signed the petition twice.
  • Hoffman "allowed others to collect signatures for him while he was not in their presence" and then subsequently signed the circulator affidavit on the petition form, which amounts to an oath saying that the circulator personally witnessed each act of signing the petition.

The court agreed to invalidate three signatures from petition-signers who came forward to say that they were not, in fact, in the immediate presence of circulator Hoffman when they signed the petition. Although their signatures were invalidated, the court did not invalidate the signatures of everyone else who signed the particular petition sheets on which those signatures appeared. The lawsuit asserts that all the signatures on those sheets should be invalidated because when Hoffman signed the circulator affidavit saying he had witnessed all the acts of signing the petition, the facts to which the court itself assents (that some of the signatures were not signed in Hoffman's presence) means that Hoffman's oath on those sheets is erroneous and therefore all the signatures should be considered invalid.

Arguments made for keeping Hoffman on ballot

Phyllis Gardner, attorney for the Secretary of State's office, and John Branson, attorney for Hoffman, made these arguments in court:

  • The term in the circulator affidavit--"in the presence of"--is ambiguous. It can mean "in proximity" or "having awareness of" as opposed to direct eyewitness visual evidence.
  • It is the perogative of the Secretary of State to interpret the exact meaning of "in the presence of" when the phrase itself is ambiguous.
  • Gardner also argued that a circulator can't know if the signer is writing down his or her true identity, even if the circulator and signer are in immediate proximity at the act of signing, and yet the oath taken by the circulator attests to the idea that the circulator knows that the signer is a registered voter.
  • Whereas, Gardner argued, in reality it is the job of the registrar to determine whether a signer really is a register voter, not the circulator.
  • Gardner also said an oath is false only if the one taking it knows it to be false at the time, which was not the case with Hoffman.
  • Attorneys Branson and Gardner warned of the consequences of disenfranchising the voters who signed the petitions correctly.
  • Branson said that if the three petition sheets were to become invalid, it would invalidate Hoffman's whole petition because he would then have less than 4,000 signatures. Branson described this as a severe and draconian outcome, and bad precedent.

Attorney Walker, representing the Democratic Party's position said the three proven cases of Hoffman violating his oath casts a shadow over his whole petition gathering system, and not invalidating it would set bad precedent for election law.

Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Donald Marden said, "I'm not going to decide this case based on a shadow."[8]

Republican party reaction

The Maine Republican Party commented on the case: ""The Democratic Party's continued efforts to challenge the validity of Hoffman's candidacy shows they and Tom Allen have gone from concerned to desperate to keep Mr. Hoffman off the November ballot. The Secretary of State already has ruled twice that Mr. Hoffman has enough valid signatures to compete in this election. Congressman Allen's latest attempt to intimidate and strong-arm Mr. Hoffman -- calling it a disservice to Democratic voters if they do not challenge his candidacy -- is backwards. It is un-democratic. Give Mr. Hoffman and his supporters a chance."[9]

A Republican party blog referred to the case as a "disgusting display of self-serving white-collar intimidation. For a party that spends so much time talking about 'democracy', this effort to infringe on Maine voters' right to choose was truly abhorrent."[10]

In a column published in the Kennebec Journal, election law specialist and Republican activist Dan Billings alluded to the events chronicled in Ralph Nader v. Democratic National Committee and said, "What makes this episode important is not the challenge itself, but what the challenge says about a party that once screamed 'count every vote' and now goes to such lengths to try to keep votes from even being cast."[11]

References

  1. Hoffman case in state's high court Thursday
  2. Maine Democrats Ask Maine Supreme Court to Remove Independent from Ballot
  3. Hoffman's candidacy survives Democratic Party challenge
  4. Maine ballot access case, oral arguments heard
  5. Dems succeed -- Hoffman off ballot
  6. Copy of the Maine Supreme Court decision
  7. According to Dan Billings, "As soon as Hoffman filed his petitions, Democratic headquarters leapt into action. They spent many hours investigating his signatures and engaged one of Maine's largest law firms to file a challenge on behalf of the party chairman. A hearing was held by the Secretary of State's office and, though a number of signatures were disqualified, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap -- a Democratic elected by the Democratic majority in the Legislature -- ruled that Hoffman had collected enough valid signatures to earn a place on the November ballot."
  8. Hoffman case: A tale of three petitions
  9. Maine GOP Chair Comments on Democratic Party’s Challenge of Herbert Hoffman’s Candidacy
  10. Maine Dems doing Tom Allen's dirty work
  11. Democrats don't want some votes to be cast