AUGUSTA, Maine — The group Maine College Democrats is charging that GOP gubernatorial nominee Paul LePage wants to limit the ability of college students to vote to their hometown, not allowing them to vote where they attend school without meeting residency requirements. A LePage spokesman says the candidate’s position is being distorted.
“Mayor Paul LePage, in 2005, [in] a Colby Echo article, said voting is a responsibility, not a right, and that students should become full members of the community before registering to vote,” said Ben Goodman, president of Maine College Democrats. He said LePage suggested students do so by fulfilling Maine residency requirements by paying taxes and registering their vehicle in Maine.
Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville, a Colby alumnus and former College Dems president, joined the Waterville news conference to attack LePage. He said the issue goes beyond the partisan election for governor.
“Maine laws are very clear, in order to vote you must be 18, a resident and a U.S. citizen,” he said. “College students who meet those requirements must be allowed to vote.”
Dan Demeritt, spokesman for Paul LePage, said the news conference was another attempt by Democrats to divert attention from the “real” issues of the campaign, which he identified as jobs and the economy.
“As mayor of Waterville, he understands that oftentimes local matters are decided by a handful of votes,” he said. “And if hundreds of people, part-time visitors to the community, come and vote in a local campaign, they can make the difference.”
Demeritt said LePage fully supports the rights of students to vote in national and statewide elections, but believes voting in local races is different.
“Maybe there needs to be a line drawn between the state and national elections and local elections where a handful of votes can make a difference,” Demeritt said.
Sen. Carol Weston, R-Waldo, a LePage supporter, agrees lawmakers should consider “fixing” Maine law, pointing out residency to vote in Maine is different from residency as determined by the University of Maine System in deciding whether to charge in-state or out-of-state tuition.
“It’s an issue that we have students that get to vote on bond issues when they know they are going to leave the state and never come back after May, when they graduate,” she said in an interview.
Weston said LePage is right to worry about the impact of students that vote when they have no intention of living and working in the state. She said she also is concerned some students have been able to vote twice in elections, once in Maine and once in their home state.
“Some of our students brag about voting in their home state as well as in Maine,” she said.
But past legal opinions by Maine attorneys general of both parties have cautioned lawmakers that voting is a constitutionally protected right and any limitations are subject to that high standard. In 2008, lawmakers considered legislation that would prohibit students who lived in college- or university-owned dormitories or other living facilities from registering to vote in Maine.
“A state law that prohibited students living in college dormitories from having the opportunity to prove a bona fide residence for voting purposes in the municipality where they attend college would likely be struck down as unconstitutional,” Attorney General Steven Rowe, a Democrat, concluded in his opinion. That opinion cited a similar opinion in 1972 by James Erwin, a Republican attorney general.
The opinion was sought by Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, to clarify a provision of the Maine Constitution that establishes voting eligibility. The provision includes the phrase “nor shall the residence of a student at any seminary of learning entitle the student to the right of suffrage in the city, town or plantation where such seminary is established.”
Some interpreted that phrase to mean students are specifically not allowed to register to vote. But Rowe wrote that an 1884 opinion of the state supreme court said that language did not rule out a student’s ability to become a resident and register to vote like anyone moving to the state from another state.
“A student attending a college or university in Maine may establish a voting residence in Maine by the same means as any other citizen of the United States, who is age 18 or older,” Rowe stated.
Lawmakers rejected the proposed legislation.