Bellows said state law requires her to make the call on candidates’ eligibility to run for office all the time — and this decision, while much more high profile, fell within that parameter.
“The legislature did not write into the law an exception for complexity or difficult natures of interpretation,” Bellows said. “They didn’t say enforce all of the constitutional qualifications except for the ones that are difficult or complex.”
Bellows likened blocking Trump from the ballot to rejecting candidates who do not meet other prerequisites, like the constitutional requirement that the president be at least 35 years old.
“I don’t have the right to place on the ballot someone who does not meet the age requirements; if a teenager sought to run for president in Maine, I would have to deny them ballot access,” she said. “The constitutional qualifications for ballot access are not a menu. I do not have the discretion to choose which of those I enforce or do not.”
Legal experts assume the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately adjudicate the 14th Amendment dispute, and Bellows said she would “welcome the Supreme Court weighing in.”
Bellows insisted that partisan or political considerations played no role in her decision and declined to discuss whether the White House — or anyone else — had reached out to her after her decision. She rebuffed a question about her own political future by saying “sole consideration in this matter is the Constitution and the rule of law.”
As secretary of state, Bellows was chosen by the legislature to oversee the state’s elections. But while challenges to Trump’s eligibility have been left to the courts in other states, state law requires that those be filed directly with Bellows in Maine.
Any registered voter in the state can challenge a candidate’s eligibility, and the Maine secretary of state is then required to hold a hearing and promptly issue a decision. That decision is appealable through the state judiciary, first at a lower court and then to the state Supreme Court.
It is an unusual setup that put Bellows in a very public spotlight as she determined Trump’s eligibility.
Her decision earlier this week that Trump was ineligible to be president made Maine the second state to keep Trump off the ballot, following the Colorado Supreme Court
ruling similarly last week. The Colorado GOP has
appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Trump’s campaign promised to quickly appeal Bellows’ determination in Maine.
And both Bellows and the Colorado justices proactively paused their own decisions to allow for appeals — meaning Trump very well could be on both states’ ballots while the process plays out.
Bellows said she first had to decide that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was an insurrection.
Trump’s attorneys had argued the riot wasn’t violent or prolonged enough to count as an insurrection. On that, Bellows said, the evidence presented was clear: It was an insurrection.
“It was an attack on the Capitol, and not just the Capitol and governmental officials there, including the former vice president and members of Congress, but also on the peaceful transfer of power and on the rule of law,” she said. “That rose to the definition of insurrection.”
But the second question “was a closer call,” she said: Did Trump engage in that insurrection?
Trump has not specifically been criminally charged with insurrection, although his actions in the run-up to and aftermath of Jan. 6 led to federal and state charges in Georgia. But Bellows said there was enough evidence presented in the hearing in Maine to conclude that Trump engaged in an insurrection for the purposes of the 14th Amendment.
Her decision cited Trump’s repeated attempts to undermine the election and his telling the crowd to “fight like hell” at his speech at the Ellipse immediately before his supporters marched to the U.S. Capitol.
“If there had been a conviction or an acquittal, under United States law, that would have been an easier decision,” she said in Friday’s interview. “But that being said, this is not a criminal proceeding. And Section 3 of the 14th Amendment does not state ‘conviction,’ it is ‘engaged in’ insurrection.”
Some Democrats have put forward a normative argument that Trump should be defeated at the ballot box rather than stopped from running through complex legal proceedings. Following Colorado’s ruling earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom
looked to squash efforts in his state by saying “in California, we defeat candidates at the polls. Everything else is a political distraction.”
And three of Maine’s four members of Congress — Republican Sen. Susan Collins, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden and independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats — all of whom voted to impeach or convict Trump after Jan. 6, said
they disagreed with Bellows’ decision.
“Absent a final judicial determination of a violation of the 14th Amendment’s disqualification clause, I believe the decision as to whether or not Mr. Trump should again be considered for the presidency should rest with the people as expressed in free and fair elections,” King
said in a statement Friday, noting he respected the “careful process” Bellows carried out.
But Bellows argued that state law required her to make a determination, no matter how politically fraught. “I cannot make any other considerations, other than the law and the Constitution, in making a decision in this matter,” she said. “I’m duty bound to set aside any other considerations: personal, political or normative.”