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'We had not seen this before' | Examining the influence of No Labels in Maine

The political organization came under fire this year for allegedly 'misleading' thousands of Maine voters.

AUGUSTA, Maine — With the 2024 presidential race heating up, election security is top of mind for Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. 

In recent months, she has found herself in the national spotlight for taking a bold stance against the practices of the organization No Labels in the state.

"This was an unprecedented situation. We had not seen this before," Bellows said.

She accused No Labels of misleading Maine voters in an attempt to gain traction in the movement for a third-party presidential candidate in 2024. 

Bellows' office issued a cease-and-desist order to No Labels in May and notified voters who may have mistakenly changed parties when they thought they were simply filling out a petition in support of the organization.

"Voters across the state felt like they were tricked into filling out voter registration cards against their will," Bellows said.

One of those voters was Keegan Delong, who said she was shocked when she received the letter from the secretary of state's office. 

"I was surprised," she told NEWS CENTER Maine. "I still want people to be able to vote however they choose to vote. I just don't want anybody to be forced into it. And that's kind of what it felt like." 

No Labels denies any wrongdoing in the situation and blamed confused voters for the mishap. 

"When you run an operation to do a petition or a voter driver, there's often some folks who just didn't fully understand it," Justin Schair, co-chair of No Labels Maine, said. 

When pressed about Bellows' accusation that thousands of voters were misled, Schair said "I think that's incorrect."

In hundreds of pages of documents, including emails and text messages, obtained by NEWS CENTER Maine, there were numerous reports of concerned voters from local clerks.

The documents were originally compiled at the request of No Labels under Maine's Freedom of Access Act. 

According to the secretary of state's office, 6,953 letters were sent to voters who were in our records as changing their party enrollment to No Labels. Now, there are 6,155 voters enrolled in the No Labels party.

"My answer to them is follow the rules like anyone else trying to form a party," Bellows said.

The impact of No Labels is not confined to Maine. While the organization has yet to get ballot access in the state, it has successfully established itself in at least ten other states. 

No Labels was founded in 2010 by a former Democratic Party operative. Known as a so-called "dark money" organization, it refused to disclose where it gets its funding. By federal law, it doesn't have to. 

Some critics argue if the party puts forward a candidate in the 2024 race, it will siphon votes away from Democrats, potentially benefiting former President Donald Trump. However, advocates dismiss those claims, stressing that the party's intention is to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans.

"The notion that this supports one candidate over the other at this stage is just false. And I think the people that say that have not necessarily been accurate in the outcome of elections in the past," Schair said.

One prominent lawmaker with insight into those kinds of elections and the moderate Maine voter is Republican Sen. Susan Collins. 

In an interview in July, Collins told NEWS CENTER Maine she does not want to see a Trump-Biden rematch, but would not say if she supports the efforts of No Labels in the 2024 race. Collins herself has been active with No Labels in the past. 

"I am a member of No Labels. It helps to bring Democrats and Republicans together in both the House and Senate to work on the infrastructure bill and the Electoral Count Act, and I think that's very valuable. I have not been involved at all in the attempt to have a presidential candidate, and I'm going to leave that decision for down the line," Collins said. 

As Maine approaches primary elections next year, Bellows says she stands firm in her position. While she understands the goals of No Labels, she continues to be concerned about its practices. 

"My responsibility as secretary of state is to make sure that the voters have the choice that they want," Bellows said. 

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