AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine Republican Chairman Charlie Webster apologized Thursday for comments he made to a television reporter about possible voter fraud because ‘‘dozens of black people’’ unfamiliar to local election officials showed up in rural towns to cast ballots on Nov. 6.
The embattled GOP leader acknowledged in a statement that his comments were made without proof of wrongdoing ‘‘and they had the unintended consequence of casting aspersions on an entire group of Americans. For that, I am truly sorry.’’
In an earlier interview with WCSH-TV in Portland, Webster said he had suspicions about voter fraud because hundreds of first-time voters registered on Election Day. He refused to say what towns he was talking about or reveal other specifics, but he said the allegations weren’t racially motivated.
He said Thursday that he never intended to bring race into the discussion.
‘‘It doesn’t matter to me whether they’re black or Chinese or Indonesian. The issue isn’t that. The issue is that people have come into vote that no one had seen before,’’ he said.
His comments drew criticism from Republicans, Democrats and a civil rights leader.
Megan Sanborn, spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said no one has complained to election officials about voter fraud and there are no plans for an investigation.
She said Secretary of State Charlie Summers, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate this fall, was surprised by Webster’s allegations and said the office doesn’t open investigations based on hearsay.
‘‘We haven’t received any phone calls regarding anyone concerned about voter fraud or anything along those lines,’’ she said. ‘‘Secretary Summers feels that every Maine person has the right to vote and he encourages people to vote. Maine has one of the highest voter turnouts in the state and Secretary Summers is proud of that.’’
Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the National Association for the Advance of Colored People, called Webster’s original comments ‘‘offensive and insulting, not only to the members of Maine’s African-American community, but to all citizens of Maine.’’
‘‘Such allegations are little more than racial demagoguery and would be beneath notice if they were not from the party of Lincoln,’’ said Ross, who wants an apology also from the state Republican Party. Ross said the statements ‘‘reveal what voters have known through this past election cycle: that racism is at the heart of the voter suppression movement.’’
Some Republicans distanced themselves from Webster and his comments.
Lance Dutson, a Republican strategist and former Senate campaign manager for Summers, posted a statement on his Twitter account Thursday saying Webster should step down now rather than wait until his term ends next month. Webster has said previously he will not seek another term as state GOP chairman.
Democratic Party spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt characterized Webster’s allegations as sour grapes after election losses and noted that the GOP has made voter fraud accusations in the past that weren’t borne out.
‘‘It’s sad to see that rather than reflecting on devastating losses of his party and going quietly, he continues to spew misinformation and to use fear-mongering as an excuse,’’ she said.
In his apology, Webster said his earlier comments ‘‘do not express the values of the Maine Republican Party, which stands for individual rights and seeks to represent all Mainers regardless of race, sex, age, religion, or wealth.’’
Webster also said he will not be sending out any mailers to try to determine whether the addresses of recent registrants are valid, as he had stated in an earlier interview.
After leading his party to a triumphant takeover of the Legislature and gubernatorial victory in 2010, things went sour for Webster. Ron Paul-backed activists took over the state Republican convention in May, upsetting many party regulars and causing confusion among Maine’s delegation to the GOP national convention.
On Nov. 6, Democrats won back control of the House and Senate by decisive margins, opening Webster to further criticism.