Municipal officials around Aroostook County say more than 50 people have signed what they thought was a petition to support a political party, but actually signed voter registration applications resulting in their unknowingly switching political parties.
Similar reports have come in across the state since last year, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said. Those voters face some inconveniences, but what’s worse, they may not be able to vote in the presidential primary elections in March. Under Maine law, residents newly enrolled in a party must wait three months to switch affiliations.
“Voters should be very cautious in signing anything, because in fact, if a voter signed a voter registration form, the legal effect of that is to change their party enrollment,” Bellows said on Thursday.
Early in 2023, voters and clerks throughout Maine alleged that the No Labels Party had informed voters they were signing a petition, when they were actually changing their party enrollment, the secretary said. People discovered the change when they received word from their municipal clerks.
State registration laws require municipal clerks to record registration cards on receipt and then send voter registration acknowledgement notes to inform applicants if their enrollment has been accepted or rejected.
Voters can change their enrollment after three months, Bellows said. Only the Republican and Democratic parties will hold presidential primaries in Maine, she said.
When numerous Fort Fairfield residents complained they’d been enrolled in another party, Town Manager Tim Goff took to social media last month to warn people about the problem. More than 30 residents have been affected, said Fort Fairfield Town Clerk Neadra Dubois.
“The reason this is becoming an issue is because of the primaries being held in March, and the cutoff to change back won’t happen until after the primaries,” Dubois said. “So some of these people will not be able to vote in the primaries.”
The influx is from recent registration drives for different parties, she said. All the registrations were signed by the residents, Dubois said.
Once the registrations are entered, there’s nothing clerks can do for three months, Dubois said.
It’s unfortunate for the 15 or so voters affected in Houlton, but clerks have to follow rules set by the secretary of state, Houlton Town Clerk Khylee Wampler said.
“You have to enter registrations on the day they were received, and now they have to be in [the party] for 90 days,” she said. “And they won’t be able to vote in the March election.”
Houlton has had a few questionable registrations for the No Labels party, but most have been for the Libertarian party, Wampler said.
Some people admitted they were duped, Wampler said. They, too, thought they were signing petitions to support the party. She asked applicants either to come to the town office or call if they did not intend to change parties.
In Presque Isle, seven people have been affected by a Libertarian Party drive, City Clerk Kim Finnemore said. Those voters have received a letter from the city alerting them of their enrollment.
“If that’s not what you want, please come in and we’ll do a new voter card,” she said.
Finnemore advised anyone affected to contact the secretary of state’s office for more information. Voter registration drives happen frequently all over the state, so many more people could be affected, she said.
Maine Libertarian Party Chairman Harrison Kemp said his party has conducted voter registration drives but the word “petition” was not used in any event he knew about, though misunderstandings could happen if party representatives didn’t explain properly or were misheard.
“I apologize that people felt they were misled, because we tried to be as upfront as we could,” he said. “We want to build goodwill in the community and it would be completely against our best interest to try to mislead people.”
Workers are instructed to make it clear to people that they’re doing a registration drive for permanent party status, he said. They use the green voter registration forms provided by the state and submit those directly to municipal clerks.
He urged any town clerks or voters who have been affected to contact him at email@example.com. In the future, the party will work to make sure workers fully explain what happens at a registration drive, he said.
In 2024, Maine will have semi-open primary elections that will allow unenrolled voters — those who choose not to align with a specific party — to vote. But for new registrants, intended or unintended, the three-month wait applies.
Fort Fairfield’s town clerk has one piece of advice: read the fine print.
“People should really pay attention to what they’re filling out or signing,” Dubois said. “If you’re filling out a voter registration card, you really need to pay attention.”