Maine’s secretary of state explains her reasons for barring Trump from primary ballot

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows says she was following Maine’s election law and upholding the U.S. Constitution when she disqualified Donald Trump from her state’s presidential primary ballot. 

Maine is the second state to bar Trump from the ballot under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution — a decision the Trump campaign said it would appeal. It is the only state where a challenge to a candidate’s qualification is initially the responsibility of the secretary of state rather than a court.

CBS News spoke with Bellows shortly after the release of her decision Thursday night.

The interview was restricted to a discussion of her ruling and the process, leaving unanswered questions about risks to her potential safety. In the wake of the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling to disqualify Trump from holding office — a ruling that’s currently on hold pending appeal — the Colorado justices who voted to bar him have been inundated with threats

“In evaluating the weight of the evidence, it (was) made clear that Mr. Trump was aware of the tinder that was laid in a multi-month effort to delegitimize the 2020 election and (he) then chose to light a match,” said Bellows, a Democrat who took office in 2021.

“The U.S. Constitution does not tolerate an assault on the foundations of our government. And Maine election law required me to act in response,” she said. “The events of January 6 were unprecedented and tragic. It was an assault not only on the Capitol and government officials, including the former vice president and members of Congress, but on the rule of law itself. … Mr. Trump engaged in that insurrection and thereby, is not qualified to be on the ballot.”

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Under Maine law, voters can petition the secretary of state with challenges to a candidate’s qualifications for office, and then a public hearing is held where the challengers must make their case. 

“In Maine, we’re very proud of our voting rights. We were first in the nation in 2022 with voter participation. And we have a statute that makes me different from any other state that I have observed,” said Bellows. “My obligation under Maine state law was to issue a decision very quickly. I’m not permitted under Maine law to wait for the United States Supreme Court to intervene in this particular proceeding.”

An appeal of the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Should the high court decide to review the case, it could have wide-ranging implications for other challenges to Trump’s eligibility across the country. 

In her decision, Bellows recognized that it “could soon be rendered a nullity” but “that possibility does not relieve me of my responsibility to act.”

In a statement released Thursday night, Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said, “We will quickly file a legal objection in state court to prevent this atrocious decision in Maine from taking effect.” 

“We are witnessing, in real-time, the attempted theft of an election and the disenfranchisement of the American voter,” he added.

Bellows: “I take the First Amendment very seriously”

Bellows was sworn in as secretary of state two days before the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. She previously served two terms in the Maine Senate. She is also the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.

“I take the Constitution very seriously. I swear an oath to uphold it. I take the First Amendment very seriously,” Bellows said.

Trump has argued that he cannot be disqualified from the presidency over his conduct surrounding the 2020 election and events of Jan. 6 because his speech is protected by the First Amendment. 

But Bellows rejected that argument, saying, “The law is very clear that the First Amendment doesn’t permit incitement of an insurrection.”  

Trump also presented the defense that the 14th Amendment does not apply to the presidency, citing an early draft of Section 3 that referred to the “office of the President or Vice President” but was not included in the final adopted language as evidence that it was intentionally removed to exclude those offices. 

However, Bellows found that the early draft in fact “confirms that the drafters both intended the presidency to be covered by Section Three and considered the presidency an office.” She points out in her decision that “it is implausible that the drafters of Section Three chose to exempt the highest office in our government from an amendment designed to keep confederates from positions of power.”

During our interview, she emphasized that her ruling rested on evidence and facts presented during the public hearing held in Maine on Dec. 15, in which Trump’s eligibility faced three challenges filed by registered voters, including one group made up of three Republican and Democratic former state senators. 

Two of the challengers asserted that Trump was barred from office because he had engaged in insurrection, violating Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. A third challenger introduced a novel theory, arguing that Trump is barred from holding office again under the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prevents presidents from serving more than two terms, since “Trump has expressly stated he won the 2020 election.”

Bellows ultimately determined that Trump was disqualified under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment but could not be barred under the 22nd.

“The parties did not dispute in the hearing that Mr. Joseph Biden won the 2020 election and that Mr. Donald Trump did not win 2020,” she explained. “Public statements alleging that Mr. Trump won is not factual evidence that Mr. Trump won and indeed, neither Mr. Trump’s counsel nor the challengers made that argument. Therefore, I ruled that Mr. Trump did not win the 2020 election and the 22nd Amendment prohibition of serving more than two terms in office does not apply.”

The Republican primaries for both Maine and Colorado will be held on March 5, known as Super Tuesday. Maine’s ballots for the military and overseas voters must be ready on Jan. 19. Anticipating an appeal of her decision, Bellows expects Maine’s Superior Court to rule before or by Jan. 17. She suspended her own ruling for five days to provide an opportunity for such an appeal.

“I am mindful that no secretary of state has ever deprived a presidential candidate of ballot access based on Section 3,” said Bellows, echoing a line from her ruling. “And I’m also mindful that no presidential candidate has ever engaged in insurrection under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.”

A possible impeachment pursuit

The Associated Press reported on Friday that Bellows could face an impeachment attempt in Maine’s state legislature. 

At least one Republican lawmaker has vowed to pursue impeachment, the Associated Press reported, but the effort faces long odds in Maine’s Democratic-controlled legislature. State representative John Andrews called Bellows’ decision “hyper-partisanship on full display” and pressed for an impeachment proceeding, according to the Associated Press. Andrews said that he had sent a notice to the state revisor’s office for a joint order to set the wheels in motion ahead of lawmakers’ return to Augusta next week.

Billy Bob Faulkingham, the House Republican leader, said there was “bipartisan opposition” to Bellows’ ruling and said she had “clearly overstepped her authority.” 

“It remains to be seen if her effort at voter suppression will garner enough Democrat support to remove her from her position,” he told the Associated Press. Other representatives on both sides of the aisle have chosen not to back Bellows’ decision, with one Democrat telling the Associated Press that he believed Trump should remain on ballots until he was “found guilty of the crime of insurrection.” 

Bellows said Friday she has no comment on the effort. 

“Under Maine law, I have not only the authority but the obligation to act,” she told the Associated Press. “I will follow the Constitution and the rule of law as directed by the courts,” she added.

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