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Maine lawmakers quash attempt to impeach secretary of state for removing Trump from primary ballot

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows attends the inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills, Jan. 4, 2023, at the Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Secretary of State Shenna Bellows attends the inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills, Jan. 4, 2023, at the Civic Center in Augusta, Maine.

Lawmakers in the Maine House rejected an effort on Tuesday to launch impeachment proceedings against Secretary of State Shenna Bellows over her decision to remove former President Donald Trump from the Republican primary ballot.

The resolution to launch a special investigative committee failed on a largely party-line vote of 60-80 after about half an hour of debate.

Republican speakers argued that Bellows disenfranchised voters by removing Trump and was biased against the former president.

"There has been no crime, there has been no impeachment, there has been no conviction in a court of law," said Rep. Katrina Smith of Palermo, one of roughly half a dozen Republicans who urged their colleagues to support the resolution. "She is not a judge, she is not a jury. And I believe that the people feel absolutely disenfranchised and she has done a great disservice to the state of Maine and to the opinion of how elections are run."

The resolution, sponsored by Rep. John Andrews of Paris, would have created a special House committee to investigate allegations of misconduct and malfeasance by Bellows. The committee would have reported its findings to the House, setting up a potential impeachment vote. If that passed the House, the Maine Senate would then have voted on whether to convict Bellows.

But the impeachment drive against Bellows was a long-shot from the start because Maine's Democratic secretary of state has strong support in the Democratic-controlled House, even if not every party leader publicly embraced her decision to remove Trump. In Maine, the secretary of state is chosen not by voters but by state lawmakers, all but ensuring (at least in recent decades) that the top election official hails from the same party that holds the majority of seats in the Legislature.

During Tuesday's debate, Democrats said Bellows was merely following the process that the Legislature laid out for secretaries of state whenever someone challenges a candidate's qualifications for the ballot.

In this case, four voters — including two former Republican state senators — argued in formal challenges that was Trump was ineligible under the U.S. Constitution's insurrection clause. They said Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election results, stoked the anger of his supporters and then did little to stop rioters on Jan. 6, 2021, as they attacked the U.S. Capitol. Bellows agreed after hearing oral arguments and reviewing filings from both sides.

"This resolution is before us not because she did anything wrong but because some of us don't like her decision," said Rep. Adam Lee, D-Auburn.

Lee said he has heard the "persistent cries" from Republicans that the courts are the best place to settle the arguments over the applicability of Section Three of the 14th Amendment to Trump. And Lee said that's exactly what's happening this week as a Superior Court justice considers the Trump campaign's appeal of Bellows' decision.

"If we are displeased that the first stop in the process is the secretary of state, it's this body that can change that — not through impeachment but through law," Lee said. "Those are the remedies."

In the end, every Democrat voted against the resolution while every Republican but one — veteran lawmaker Rep. David Woodsome of Waterboro — voted to launch an impeachment investigation against the sitting secretary of state.

Bellows said afterward that she was heartened that the majority of House members believed "one should not remove an elected official for doing their job and following the constitution."

"That being said, this matter is one for the courts and the work of the people is something we must do together regardless of how people voted today. And I am committed to doing that," Bellows told reporters in the State House soon after the vote.

Trump's name remains on Maine's Republican primary ballot while his appeals play out in court.

The impeachment vote came as Bellows and Trump’s legal team sparred in briefs over the timeline for the former president’s appeal.

A brief filed on Bellows' behalf on Monday says a request by Trump's legal team to delay its appeal until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a similar case in Colorado would violate Maine election law and compromise the administration of the upcoming March 5 presidential primary.

Maine Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy, who is overseeing the case, has not responded to the delay request, but had originally said in a procedural order that she would rule on the case by Jan. 17.

Bellows argues that Murphy should stick to that timeline to prevent confusion and that waiting for the high court to adjudicate the Colorado case sometime in mid-February will make it harder for Maine election officials to administer the primary election.

"A stay of this proceeding, followed by a February decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, may ultimately force the Secretary and her staff to scramble to minimize damage to the integrity of the March 5, 2024 election," the brief reads.

In its request for a delay, Trump's attorneys had argued that the Colorado case will affect the Maine decision, but Bellows says in her latest filing that the high court could issue a narrow ruling specific to Colorado law.

Both efforts to remove Trump from the ballot say the former president violated the insurrection clause of the U.S. Constitution when he incited the riots at the U.S. Capitol three years ago.

The U.S. Supreme Court scheduled oral arguments in the Colorado case for Feb. 8.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.