Maine’s secretary of state has sent a cease-and-desist letter to national organization No Labels, expressing concerns that it has confused voters who think they are signing a petition but instead are enrolling in a new party.
Maine’s secretary of state has formally warned a national organization that is trying to form a new political party in all 50 states against mischaracterizing its intentions to prospective voters.
Shenna Bellows sent a cease-and-desist letter Thursday to Nicholas Connors, director of ballot access for the group No Labels, expressing concerns that their efforts have confused voters who think they are merely signing a petition but are enrolling in a new party.
“Over the past few months, municipal clerks have received reports from numerous Maine voters who did not realize that they had been enrolled in the No Labels Party,” Bellows wrote. “These voters have provided similar accounts of how they came to be enrolled in the party: that they were approached by No Labels Party organizers in public places and asked to sign a ‘petition’ to support the new party. These voters have further stated that No Labels organizers did not disclose – and the voters did not understand – that No Labels was asking them to change their party enrollment.”
In an interview Thursday morning after she sent the letter, Bellows said she has asked municipal clerks to continue gathering information and share it with her office in the event an investigation is warranted. Her office also has sent letters to more than 6,000 voters who have signed up with the No Labels party since its effort was authorized in late December.
“We think it’s really important that voters have full and fair information about their right to enroll in the party of their choice,” she said.
The letter to voters makes clear that if they did intend to enroll in the No Labels part, no action is required. But it also says that if voters did not intend to enroll in a new party, they need to contact their municipal office to fill out a new voter registration card.
In a statement provided to the Press Herald, No Labels said it was confident its organizers were above board.
“Every No Labels organizer in Maine was given crystal-clear instructions that they are asking citizens to change their party affiliation,” the statement read. “We take no issue with the secretary of state notifying these signers that they are now members of the No Labels Party in Maine. We have operated under the guidelines provided by the Maine secretary of state, according to both the letter and spirit of the rules, and we have total confidence in our transparent engagement with Maine voters.”
Former State Sen. Dick Woodbury, a Yarmouth independent who has been involved with No Labels for years, said he was surprised to see the secretary of state, who is a Democrat, target the group.
“What voters are signing is just a basic registration form that you sign when enrolling in any party, and it seems like this group is being treated differently somehow,” he said. “It does feel a little ridiculous to me that the secretary of state is now going to start calling people who filled out the form.”
No Labels was founded in 2010 by Nancy Jacobson, a longtime Democratic fundraiser, and has been supported by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, among others.
More recently, reporting by The Daily Beast and the New Republic – which relied on leaked internal documents – found that big-name Republican donors like David Koch, Peter Thiel, and Harlan Crow have given money to No Labels, furthering the idea that its motivations might not be altruistic.
Although the group has not gotten widespread traction electorally, it has influenced moderate lawmakers in both parties. They were heavily involved in lobbying Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona to oppose any efforts to end the filibuster in 2021 and have sponsored the “Problem Solvers Caucus,” which is made up of more than 40 members of Congress, including Rep. Jared Golden.
Sen. Susan Collins also has been an honorary co-chair of No Labels since 2017 but has no involvement with its effort to promote a third-party presidential candidate.
Woodbury said he sees No Labels’ vision as similar to what he tried to do during his legislative career.
“As somebody who thinks our two-party system – at least the way it’s playing out in America now – is completely dysfunctional … to give someone who is profoundly frustrated another place to go seems like something worth supporting,” he said.
ORGANIZING IN ALL 50 STATES
Dating back to late last year, No Labels has been working to organize in all 50 states to have a third-party candidate on the ballot in the 2024 presidential election. No candidate has been named, but Democrats have expressed concerns that a third-party candidate would be a threat to President Biden’s reelection bid and would unwittingly help the Republican candidate, perhaps former President Donald Trump, who is the undisputed front-runner for his party.
So far, No Labels has been successful in establishing an official party in Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona, although the Democratic Party in Arizona has sued the Secretary of State’s Office there to stop No Labels from getting on the ballot next year.
In Maine, a new political party needs only 5,000 registered voters to earn standing, and more than 6,000 have signed on, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. That number could decrease in the weeks ahead if many were confused about what there were signing.
Some Maine clerks confirmed that they have indeed heard from confused voters.
“As a voter, I think you need to be aware, and there is a clear difference between a petition and a voter registration card,” said Marina Gagne, a clerk in the York County town of Waterboro.
Gagne said the town’s deputy registrar has reached out to several voters over the past couple of weeks, but she feels fortunate the timing isn’t closer to an election.
Voters in Maine are allowed to change political parties, but they must do so at least 15 days before the next primary election they plan to vote in. That waiting period exists to guard against large numbers of voters switching parties at the last minute to try and sway the outcome of a primary election.
Beginning in 2024, Maine will adopt semi-open primaries, which means unenrolled voters can vote in either a Republican or Democratic primary without registering with either. However, a Democrat could not vote in a Republican primary, or vice versa, without changing party affiliation three months prior.
Asked whether she’s concerned that voters need to be more vigilant than ever, Bellows said she believes her office has a vital role in communicating any concerns.
“In an era of disinformation and mal-information, our job is to make sure people have access to facts,” she said, “We want voters to know their rights, and that includes their First Amendment right to create a new party like No Labels. But in the process of doing so, we need to make sure everyone is playing by the rules.”