Source of “push poll” in O’Neill-Langley race a mystery

ELLSWORTH — It would have been hard to tell who was more surprised — the purported “pollster” or the “pollee.”

Annie O’Neill, mother of Democratic Senate candidate Moira O’Neill of Surry, received a call a month ago from a young man who said he was conducting an election poll.

O’Neill asked for the name of his employer. He said he didn’t know.

“He said that he is a contractor,” O’Neill said. “People send him surveys and he just makes the calls.”

After a few questions, the caller said he would read statements about the candidates for Sen. Brian Langley’s (R-Hancock County) seat in the Legislature to gauge which statements might affect O’Neill’s vote.

Langley is being challenged by Democrat Moira O’Neill.

The young man then went on to say that Moira O’Neill moved to Maine only four years ago.

He said O’Neill would expand welfare programs and Obamacare and increase the budget by more than 49 percent.

The caller also stated that Moira was trained by an extreme liberal group that had lost its tax-exempt status because it recruits candidates for the Democratic Party.

Annie O’Neill told the caller that the statements were false and that she knew Moira O’Neill better than most.

“She’s my daughter,” O’Neill told the young man. “He started to laugh. He thought it was funny.’”

Annie O’Neill later explained her daughter has lived in Maine for five years, supports expanding MaineCare to lower the costs of premiums for all and the “extreme liberal” group could only be Emerge Maine.

Emerge Maine is part of a national initiative to train Democratic women to run campaigns and gave up its tax-exempt status once the mission was clarified.

Theodore Fletcher of Surry, who has been working on Moira O’Neill’s campaign, said he and a half-dozen or so residents that he knows of in the area received the same call.

“We’re kind of astounded,” Fletcher said. “Moira is determined that she’s not getting down into the gutter, but this is just on the edge of dirty politics.”

When the Secretary of State’s Office was called by The American, a spokesman referred the caller to the state Ethics Commission.

Paul Lavin, the commission’s assistant director, said the reputed polling call sounded like it might be a “push poll,” the characteristics of which are determined by law.

A “push poll” is any paid telephone survey that references a candidate or group of candidates “other than in a basic preference question.”

The push poll must use a list or directory to select respondents belonging to a particular subset of the population based on demographic or political characteristics such as race, sex, age, ethnicity, party affiliation or similar characteristics.

The survey must fail to make demographic inquiries on factors such as age, household income or status to allow for tabulating the results consistent with standard polling industry practices.

A push poll, under the law, does not collect or tabulate survey results, prefaces a question regarding support for a candidate on the basis of an untrue statement and is primarily intended to suppress or change the vote of the person receiving the call.

The statute — which carries a $500 fine — goes on to require that people conducting push polls identify the person or organization sponsoring the call and register as a designated agent with the state.

“We have in the past investigated something that was a push poll,” Lavin said. “All five elements have to be present. If somebody is doing a push poll, they have to register with us prior to doing the push poll.

“I have been here 11 years and don’t recall ever seeing a push poll registration.”

In the case that was investigated, Lavin said, the organization produced the script and tabulated results.

“It was an actual poll,” he said. “What they were doing is testing messages to see which messages resonated with the respondent, which is a legitimate poll.”

“You don’t have to register those polls,” he added. “Those are considered legitimate.”

It’s all a mystery to Langley, who said he has been the victim of push polls in virtually all of his elections and was never able to get to the bottom of any of them.

“I hate them,” Langley said. “How can they know anything negative about my opponent who has never been in the public sector? It’s crazy stuff.”

Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said he has not heard of any push polls being conducted at this time.

Bennett said he was a victim of push polls in his 1994 congressional campaign.

“I would never countenance such tactics by the Maine GOP or any other entity I lead,” he said.

Lavin, of the Ethics Commission, said it would be nearly impossible to track down the source of the caller to Surry voters given the barebones information and the fact that it occurred some weeks ago.

If the commission had enough information to determine a violation likely occurred, he said, the matter would be turned over to the five-member commission.

Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Jacqueline's beat covers the eastern Hancock County towns of Lamoine through Gouldsboro as well as Steuben in Washington County. She was a reporter for the New York Times, United Press International and Reuters before moving to Maine. She also publicized medical research at Yale School of Medicine and scientific findings at Yale University for nine years.[email protected]
Jacqueline Weaver

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