A day after being fined $3,251 by the Maine ethics commission for a late campaign finance filing, the group working to prohibit Election Day registration is facing questions about a television ad it released this week.
Secure Maine's Ballot, which is urging a no vote on Question 1, released a 15-second spot Tuesday that aired on local television stations. Critics say the ad follows a pattern of same-day registration opponents' attempts to confuse voters and raise doubts about a law that's been on the books for nearly 40 years.
A yes vote on Question 1 would retain that law. A no vote would uphold the Legislature's controversial decision last spring to eliminate Election Day registration.
Supporters of the practice have called it same-day voter registration.
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."
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."
Farmer was referring to an ongoing debate in the Legislature over the fate of the Clean Election Act, which some Republicans have sought to eliminate.
Farmer believes the ad deploys "the same strategy that the 'no' side has used all along during the campaign. They are trying to confuse the issue, and the ad is deceptive."
Jen Webber, a spokeswoman for the No on 1 campaign, said the ad was created by an outside agency. Webber couldn't say what the ad meant by referring to "Maine's ethics law," or whether "outsiders from other states" was a reference to out-of-state college students.
The latter were targeted early in the campaign by Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster for "potential" voter fraud.
Webber said she couldn't comment on the meaning behind the ad because she wasn't involved in its creation. She said her group was fortunate to have a television ad, given that it's being outspent by Yes on 1.
"We believe it's an effective ad," Webber said. "We're getting a lot of positive feedback about it."
The ad also mentions "outside interests" influencing Maine elections, a reference Farmer and his group believe is directed at groups involved in the 'Yes' coalition, unions, progressive organizations and Donald Sussman, the hedge-fund manager who is married to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.
Sussman, Yes on 1's biggest contributor, is frequently derided by Republicans for his support of Democratic candidates and causes.
The 'No' campaign also faces questions about its use of outside money. The recently formed ballot question committee started its campaign with about $37,000. However, the group's recent spending activity indicates that it's not working on a shoestring budget.
The group has reported at least 18 expenditures totaling $335,223 since the state's 24-hour reporting period kicked in Oct. 26. The 'Yes' coalition has spent $279,400 on three expenditures, including a $243,818 television ad that will air this week.
The 'No' group has spent money on a variety of sources, including television and radio ads, direct mailings and robocalls.
Webber declined to say whether her group was using outside money to fund its campaign. She said the group would have "an internal discussion" to see whether it wanted to reveal its funding sources before Election Day.
The 'Yes' group has not voluntarily unveiled the source of its 24-hour contributions, either.
Neither side is required to do so. The 24-hour reporting period only requires campaigns to disclose expenditures — not their funding sources — during the 13 days before Election Day.
That means the public will have to wait until after Election Day to see who tried to influence Question 1 during the final days of the campaign.
In 2010 the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices tried to mandate contribution disclosure during the 24-hour period. The Democratic-controlled Legislature rejected the commission's proposal.
While both groups are playing by the current rules, some on the 'Yes' side believe Election Day registration opponents purposely withheld the bulk of their financial activity so the public wouldn't know who was attempting to influence the election until it's decided.
Individuals on the 'No' side have rejected that criticism, saying spending in the campaign was always going to occur late.
Recent polling suggests the battle over Question 1 will be a close one on Election Day. Public Policy Polling, a national polling firm in North Carolina, released a survey Wednesday showing that respondents slightly favored Election Day registration, 48 percent to 44 percent. The differential, however, is just outside the poll's margin of error, suggesting the race is close to a toss-up.
The PPP poll was weighted toward older voters. Forty-four percent of the respondents were between the ages of 46 and 65. Only 8 percent said they were between the ages 18 and 29, an age group that could be a key demographic on Election Day.
Webber, with No on 1, said her group had no plans to appeal the $3,251 penalty levied by the ethics commission Tuesday for filing a late expenditure. The expenditure was for the television ad that the 'Yes' group claims is misleading.
Voters should expect a flurry of "No on 1" mailers over the next few days. The group has reported eight direct-mail expenditures. Disclosure forms show that several mailers appear to continue the group's theme of protecting Maine elections from outside influence.