Some helpful facts for voters in today’s elections

Posted Nov. 03, 2008, at 6:08 p.m.

Americans today believe that they have a right not only to vote, but to vote without being afraid to do so. That’s as it should be. Unfortunately, questions and rumors around election time can create doubts for voters, but they needn’t. Here are some facts that may be helpful.

Extensive research from The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School confirms that individual voter fraud — such as intentionally voting while ineligible or voting twice — “is extraordinarily rare.” The Maine Secretary of State’s Office agrees. Though that office takes investigation into election fraud allegations seriously, it reports it has found virtually no actionable voter fraud in Maine in the last 10 years. Nationally, the individuals the U.S. Department of Justice has convicted of voter fraud since 2002 represent about 0.000003 percent of all persons casting ballots during that time. The DOJ cites no group — students, snowbirds, new registrants, new citizens, or others — as being responsible for these occurrences.

Special barriers to voter registration are illegal. With very few exceptions — being under guardianship for mental illness, for example — anyone establishing that he or she is at least 18 years of age, is a U.S. citizen, and is a resident of the municipality in which she seeks to vote, has the right to register and vote in Maine. U.S. and Maine law prohibit special or discriminatory residency requirements for any class of voters.

Under the U.S. Constitution, college dorms can be voting residences. Federal courts have held that a college dorm can serve as a permanent residence for voting; and the Supreme Court has ruled that holding students to a different standard — such as requiring a special residency questionnaire — is unconstitutional.

The Internal Revenue Service says voting at college does not affect status as a dependent on tax returns. According to the IRS, voting residency — at college, for example — has nothing to do with being claimed as a dependent on parents’ tax returns. The Brennan Center for Justice confirms that, generally, federal and state financial college aid are also safe. Check local and private scholarships.

Police are not waiting at the polls to make arrests for warrants or unpaid parking tickets. Clever — but false — fliers claiming this sort of thing, and designed to look like a friendly reminder from a candidate’s campaign, are circulating elsewhere in the nation. Police officers, if any, at the polls aren’t there to intimidate but to ensure orderly voting. In fact, under Maine’s constitution, except for treason, felony and breach of the peace, voters are exempt from arrest while at the polls or while traveling to or from voting there.

Maine law protects against inappropriate polling place challenges. Polling place challenges have been fairly rare during most recent Maine election cycles, but voters do have a right to object if they have a well-founded reason to believe a person shouldn’t be voting in that location. Challengers must swear under penalty of perjury that their objections are specific and meet a certain standard of reasonableness. This helps reduce frivolous challenges. A challenged voter votes anyway. That ballot is set aside and examined only if the election is so close that the challenged ballots would make a difference. Obstructive challengers may be removed from the polls.

Vote in this important election. Know and comply with registration rules and be cautious about rumors. You can register at the polls on Election Day. For more information, check with your municipal office or the Maine secretary of state at 626-8400 or http://maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/.

Stephanie Cotsirilos has been a volunteer voter protection attorney in Orono since 2002.

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