Videotaping upsets signers of gun petition

This man filmed people signing petitions at City Hall on Election Day. PHOTO COURTESY OF RUTH ROSSI
This man filmed people signing petitions at City Hall on Election Day.

ELLSWORTH — Residents who went to City Hall and cast ballots on Nov. 3 got stickers that read, “I voted!”

Those who stopped in the building’s lobby that afternoon to peruse and possibly sign any of several petitions being circulated could have also received a sticker that said, “I was filmed by a stranger and I don’t know how he’s going to use the footage!”

A man from a group calling itself Project Dirigo spent several hours videotaping those gathering signatures on the petitions as well as those signing them, according to people who were at City Hall that afternoon.

Wearing a suit and tie, glasses and a hat — and at times a smile — the man set up on a small folding stool and held his digital camera up while people signed petitions and discussed political issues at the tables. At times, witnesses said, he got closer to the table and asked those there for their names.

While not illegal, what he did deeply bothered those at the table across from him.

“It was intimidation,” said Ruth Rossi, who was at City Hall for the Maine Peoples Alliance to collect signatures on a petition calling for a statewide vote on increasing the minimum wage.

“I thought of the KKK,” she continued, “and how they didn’t want blacks to register, so they frightened them to stay away from the polling places.”

Rossi and Kay Wilkins, who was there overseeing the petition table, both said the unidentified man was focused on a petition being circulated by Maine Moms Demand Action that seeks to have a statewide vote on a proposal to require background checks on all gun sales.

“He made that very clear,” said Wilkins, echoing accounts from other locations around Maine where Project Dirigo showed up on Nov. 3. The group, for its part, said it was trying to ensure the integrity of the petition process.

Though Ellsworth was not alone, it was apparently one of only a very few. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said this week the only other communities he knew of where people were filmed while signing petitions were Portland, Old Orchard Beach and Augusta.

“We did get quite a few complaints about it,” said Dunlap, noting that most of those were relayed by members of the media who called after hearing about the issue from voters or election officials.

Dunlap said his staff consulted with the Attorney General’s Office on the morning of Election Day and “determined pretty quickly there’s not much we could do about it.”

“The law is silent,” he said, and does not prohibit the kind of activity that was observed.

Dunlap said the act of circulating any petition is “a very public act,” and that it is difficult to ask for part of such a process — even the signing of one’s signature — to not be public. The petitions themselves are public documents, and anyone who is interested can eventually find out who has signed a particular petition.

Dunlap said he understands why people were upset, however, and he said there may be action in the coming legislative session in Augusta to address the issue.

He said Democratic State Sen. Bill Diamond of Cumberland County, himself a former secretary of state, has expressed interest in “sort of putting some sideboards on the process a bit.”

Though a bill has not yet been drafted, and there is no guarantee the Legislative Council would give the needed green light to get it before the full Legislature once it is written, Dunlap said it is likely a bill from Diamond might essentially boil down to “if a voter says ‘I don’t want to be filmed,’ then they can’t be filmed.”

The cameraman in Ellsworth showed up sometime mid- to late afternoon on Election Day and stayed until the polls closed at 8 p.m. City Clerk Heidi Grindle said he checked in with city staff when he arrived, asking where the petitions were so he knew where to set up.

Grindle said she only became aware of his presence when people in the lobby were getting “agitated” and in some cases “kind of combative” toward him.

The man refused to give his full name (he apparently gave his first name on a few occasions, though no one interviewed for this article could remember just what it was) and did not speak in detail about what he was going to do with the footage. That, Grindle said, upset people.

“They were really right in his face,” she said. “I thought one guy was going to punch the guy with the camera in the face.”

That may have been a man Wilkins saw, who she said was upset after his daughter was caught on the man’s camera.

Grindle said she did not have an issue with the cameraman himself, whom she described as polite. She said she became concerned for his safety when she heard some people say things along the lines of that they were going to get his license plate number from his car and/or follow him home.

Grindle noted people are filmed, whether they know it or not, most any time they head out in public because of the prevalence of surveillance cameras. That said, she also said she understood the concerns of those at the petition table and in the lobby.

“I get their concern,” she said. “I get they feel there were scare tactics.”

Wilkins attested to that. She was only planning to be at the table a short time, but ended up staying until the polls closed when one of her volunteers got “totally freaked out by the situation.”

“She was really upset and scared,” Wilkins said.

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
Steve Fuller

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