LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Maine's top election official is concerned No Labels is unwittingly enrolling voters in its third-party presidential effort as the well-funded centrist organization attempts to get on the ballot across the country in 2024.
Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows sent a cease-and-desist letter to No Labels and official letters to every voter registered with the party last month, after what she said were numerous complaints from local clerks and voters who said No Labels organizers misled voters.
“Voter after voter is telling my team that they were instructed that they were merely signing a petition. They were not told they were changing their political party,” Bellows, who is a Democrat, said in an interview Monday. “We have had enough similar complaints from voters and clerks alike that it raises serious concerns in our office about No Labels Party organizers.”
No Labels is trying to get on the ballot in states across the country as it prepares to mount what could be the most formidable third-party presidential campaign in a generation. Democrats worry their candidate could be a spoiler who would help re-elect former President Donald Trump.
The well-connected Washington-based group, whose co-chairs include former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, does not have a candidate selected yet, but is hoping for someone like moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., with plans to select its ticket next spring.
In Maine, Bellows said voters complained they were told they were signing a petition when in fact they were signing a voter registration form that enrolled them with the new No Labels Party. This would prohibit them from participating in Republican or Democratic primaries, which are only open to members of those parties or independent voters.
The issue first arose after local clerks received an unusual number of complaints from voters who were surprised to see they were registered with No Labels, Bellows said. Her office then decided to take the unusual step of sending a letter to the more than 6,000 voters who had registered with No Labels in the state, making sure they were aware of their registration status and informing them how to change it if needed.
The letter then asked voters to contact her office “if you believe you were misled into changing your enrollment.” Bellows' office said more than 300 voters called or emailed in response.
She also sent a cease and desist letter to No Labels warning them that using the term "petition" is "highly misleading" and that its organizers must start "affirmatively disclosing" to voters that they are asking them to change their party registration.
Bellows said the stories from voters were remarkably consistent, with voters reporting they were approached at home or in public places like supermarket parking lots.
New parties need to enroll 5,000 voters to qualify for the ballot in Maine and Bellows said the state has had no such issues with the other third parties active in the state.
“And we continue to receive complaints from voters,” Bellows said. “We had at least two calls earlier this morning.”
No Labels officials denied any wrongdoing and fired back at Bellows, accusing her of unfairly and nefariously targeting them while arguing her actions could amount to voter suppression.
“This is an unprecedented targeted action against No Labels,” said Benjamin Chavis Jr., a civil rights leader and former top NAACP official who is now a co-chair of No Labels. “Does No Labels feel that something is not right? The answer is yes.”
The group said it had instructed its organizers to ask voters to join the No Labels Party and note the form voters signed is titled "Maine voter registration application."
“We hope that the secretary of state of Maine will refrain from any acts of voter suppression and voter intimidation or the unfair denial of ballot access,” Charvis added.
Sen. Susan Collins, the moderate Maine Republican who is an honorary co-chair of No Labels, also said she worried Bellows was unnecessarily raising alarm among voters who voluntarily registered with No Labels. “It did strike me as surprising that she would take that tack,” Collins said in an interview with a local TV station.
Still, No Labels is facing numerous challenges and vocal detractors, especially among Democrats, and not just in Maine.
One of No Labels’ founders, former Bill Clinton aide William Galston, publicly resigned from the organization over the presidential effort, writing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning the group would help Trump or whomever Republicans nominate win, just as third-party candidates helped Trump in 2016 and George W. Bush in 2000.
The Arizona Democratic Party sued to prevent No Labels from getting on the ballot in the key swing state, accusing the group of flouting state laws governing new parties. “Arizonans deserve...to know who is behind this shadowy organization,” said Arizona Democratic Party Executive Director Morgan Dick.
No Labels officials called that lawsuit “undemocratic and unscrupulous."
Statewide, Maine has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992. But it is one of only two states that split their Electoral College votes by congressional district, one of which is highly competitive and sided with Trump in both 2016 and 2020.