For a while it seemed like the prohibitionists would never give up.
Twenty-four hours after the polls closed on Nov. 8, Maine’s adult-use legalization measure, Question 1, looked like it had passed by a margin of about 4,000 votes. Question 1 opponents refused to concede. They demanded a recount. And so in early December the recounting commenced. And went on. And on. Finally the re-counters hit their holiday deadline. On Friday, December 16, the recount was suspended until January 2017.
The recount was suspended until January. That’s when the No side decided they’d had enough.
That’s when the No side decided they’d had enough. And as if Maine’s path to legalization could get any weirder, the decision to abandon the recount was made by a longtime lobbyist for the beer, wine, liquor and soda industry.
“We are satisfied that the count and the result are accurate,” Newell Auger said in statement released December 17. Auger’s official capitulation followed two weeks of close examination of about 30 percent of the total ballots cast in the November election.
A week earlier, though, he’d been singing a different tune.
No On 1 made gains, but not enough
“The margin has narrowed,” Augur declared in early December. Augur was the legal advisor to the group known as Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities. He’d recently taken over as the replacement spokesman for campaign manager Scott Gagnon, who’d decided to move on with his life.
Newell Auger, No On 1 leader
On the fourth day of the recount, Augur stood in the corner of a large conference room at the Maine State Police headquarters in Augusta, where the recount was being held. Wearing a Santa hat and a business suit, he tried to sound optimistic. “In every town counted,” he said, “we’ve made gains.”
While Augur was technically correct, by the time the proceedings went on break after eight days of counting, tabulating and re-tabulating over 210,000 ballots, the No side had gained 90 of the 4,000 votes needed to change the outcome of the adult-use referendum. Most of new No votes came from ballots where voters filled in the ovals incorrectly.
“Diligence is necessary”
From the get-go, the statistical challenge was obvious. Even after 100,000 ballots from the state’s five largest communities were re-tallied with no marked change, Augur wasn’t satisfied. He insisted on a Phase Two round, which involved ballot inspections from 25 towns based upon his team’s analysis of blank ballots. They were especially suspicious of locales where referendum vote totals were higher than the votes cast for president. Apparently they missed the memo. Across the country, election officials had reported large numbers of presidential ballots left blank. In Maine, almost 24,000 disaffected voters didn’t choose anyone for prez.
“This diligence is necessary to ensure the vote was accurate,” said Auger. “A significant number of people voted against this proposal.”
The hiring of a big shot like Auger, a veteran lobbyist-lawyer, showed that the reefer-madmen were intent on exhausting every possible tactic. He eagerly recycled many of the No side’s campaign canards, including claims that the 30-page referendum written by the local activist group Legalize Maine was actually written and paid for by out-of-state special interests and possibly even foreign-owned corporations. Which is even more nutty, considering Augur, “as a favor to a friend,” actually collected a handful of signatures back in 2015 on a Question 1 petition.
It was especially strange to listen to this particular fella complain about out-of-state influences messing with Maine politics. After all, Augur’s $200 hourly fee was being paid by the Alliance for Healthy Marijuana Policy, which is based in Virginia. Plus, Augur is best known around Maine as the lobbyist who raised four million bucks — mostly from the international booze and beverage cartel — for a 2008 referendum to repeal a pennies-per-serving tax on soda, beer and wine. That tax helped fund a now-defunct health care insurance program geared to small business, the self-employed and the working poor.
More recently, Auger has lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the Maine Beverage Association, the American Chemical Council, insurance companies, the confectioners industry, along with more benign entities like hospice groups and the Federation of Maine Dog Clubs. Just prior to taking the prohibitionist gig, Augur’s newest client was R.S.V.P. Discount Beverage, one of the state’s largest liquor retailers and a major alcohol reseller to bars and restaurants.
‘I don’t think that’s a fair question,’ he said, removing his Santa hat.
Augur, though, took umbrage at the suggestion there was anything peculiar about working on behalf of both prohibitionists and the liquor industry.
“I don’t think that’s a fair question,” he said, removing his Santa hat. Then, dodging further queries about his curious collection of clients, he pivoted and explained another one of his problems with Question 1. Legal cannabis, he said, won’t be taxed high enough for his liking. “A number of folks have expressed to me,” he said, “that [the 10 percent sales tax] is an abysmally low tax for a controlled substance that would be sold in storefronts across the state of Maine.”
Gotta wonder if Augur had exchanged talking points with Maine Gov. Paul LePage. LePage has been noticeably quiet on legalization lately. The only time he’s broken his silence has been to complain that the cannabis sales tax was set too low, and to suggest that adult-use legalization should end the state’s medical marijuana program.
If you’re at all familiar with our, ah, eccentric chief executive, you will like most Mainers, be completely unsurprised by his reaction to Question 1’s passage. Nor will you be shocked to hear that LePage has threatened to not sign the customary proclamation declaring passage of the referendum. During a recent signing ceremony for three other referenda, he told the audience, without any specifics, that he questioned the legitimacy of the 2016 election results.
Can he do more to obstruct the implementation of legalization? Possibly. Statehouse chatterboxes are abuzz with possible tactics the governor and his department heads might use to slow down the process.
Where were the “No” counters?
On the last day of the recount at state police headquarters in Augusta, the recount room was crawling with cops as they hauled away scores of padlocked ballot boxes. The ballot counters wrapped themselves in winter gear in anticipation of a snowy commute home.
A good chunk of the Yes On 1 team had been carpooling the hourlong trip from Portland to the state capital. Although they’ve good-naturally embraced the task of counting and re-counting, campaign leaders and volunteers said they’d much rather be working towards implementation of the new law instead of examining each and every ballot for eight hours a day.
“It’s been going as smooth as can be expected for a statewide recount,” said Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who’d been re-elected to a third term by the Maine legislature earlier that week. “I think we’ve been handicapped a little bit because we haven’t had enough counters from the No side. That’s slowed things down a little bit.”
In explaining why the No side — who petitioned for the recount — couldn’t supply the required number of counters, Augur told the Portland Press Herald that his supporters are volunteers with full-time jobs. In order to fill missing slots, a handful of folks from the medical marijuana community, led by activist-turned-lobbyist Hillary Lister, who had joined forces with prohibitionists during the campaign, showed up most days to help count the ballots. On several days, volunteers from the Yes side and sometimes even Augur himself filled empty seats at the counting table.
It became obvious that Dunlap was eager for the recount to end. He needed his staff back. “If [the recount] stretches on too long,” he said, “it adds to an atmosphere of uncertainty. And that’s just not fair to the public.” Then he shrugged and smiled. “We feel pretty confident, looking at this recount and seeing how things went. The election was run pretty darn well on Election Day.”
That’s why LePage’s public dissing of the election results bothers Dunlap so much. “There’s a real risk” to making such statements, he said. “People will stay home if the governor says [elections] are rigged. That’s inflammatory and does nothing to serve the process.”
Wary of a LePage-led slowdown
As for LePage messing with the outcome of the referendum, Dunlap was dismissive. “The Maine Constitution is clear. The Governor can’t veto a measure approved by the people,” he said. “Signing the proclamation is a ministerial act. If he refuses to sign it, I will.”
Dunlap’s signature on the proclamation would add another bizarre twist to Maine’s legalization saga. Earlier this year, Dunlap rejected 47,000 signatures for the legalization initiative due to alleged irregularities. The Yes on 1 camp fought back in court, and a judge ordered Dunlap to put the question to the voters.
Matt Dunlap, Maine Secretary of State
Ready for another surprise? “I have no issue with marijuana,” said Dunlap. “Personally, I think legalization probably should have happened long ago. But the public policy process can be arduous. Any major civil rights change takes a lot of work over a long time. And this was no different.”
Here’s what may be the most most incongruous campaign stunner yet. After a long and exhausting six months, No on 1 leader Scott Gagnon — who recently stepped out of the campaign spotlight — will soon be vacationing in Jamaica. The famously cannabis-friendly island nation is also the favorite vacation spot for Gov. Lepage and his family.
We don’t condone or encourage the smuggling of cannabis seeds across international borders, which is illegal. But here’s a friendly reminder. The new legal limit in Maine is six plants for personal use.