UM student government decries bill to require photo ID for voting

Posted March 04, 2011, at 5:32 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine’s General Student Senate has joined the fray to oppose a bill circulating in the Maine Legislature that would require voters to present photo identification at the polling place.

UMaine’s 35-member student government passed a resolution early last week censuring a bill that it feels unfairly targets college students in particular by restricting their voting rights. The resolution garnered nearly unanimous support, and allowed the student senate to send a letter explaining its reasoning to both Gov. Paul LePage and state lawmakers in both houses.

The resolution, said Caleb Rosser, 22, a third-year political science student who proposed the measure, is specifically aimed at legislation being sponsored by Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, that would require a voter to show a form of government-issued identification that lists a residence located within the voting district.

For Rosser, and the student senators who sponsored the resolution, the problem with such a provision for college students is the nature of their living arrangements. If such a requirement were to become law, because students maintain both on and off-campus housing, they may be forced to renew their identification yearly — something Rosser says is akin to a poll tax, due to the costs associated with renewing one’s identification.

“By sending this to Maine leaders in Augusta, I hope that we can get some assurances that students’ access to voting  won’t be unnecessarily abridged,” Rosser said in an e-mail of the letter. “I hope our resolution, and  the accompanying letter, will let the sponsors and co-sponsors of the bill know that we as students have some concern about these proposals.”

Maine has long made voting an easy process for its residents, especially in comparison to other states. Currently, state law permits same-day registration, so unregistered voters can fill out a voter registration card minutes before being handed a ballot. Rosser and other student senators feel the ease of the current law allows young college voters who split their time between two cities or states to make it to the closest polling place at election time.

Without it, Rosser said, young voters may be discouraged from voting at all if they are forced to travel back to their hometowns or pay a fee to update their photo identification in order to vote.

Furthermore, the proposed legislation is being co-sponsored by 83 lawmakers, none of whom are Democrats. This fact prompted student senators at UMaine to wonder if Maine’s Republican-controlled Legislature was “colluding” to undermine college students’ impact on elections and public policy, as their vote often means support for the Democratic Party.

But lawmakers including Cebra argue it is their duty to do everything in their power to preserve and protect the democratic process. Cebra said  in an interview with The Associated Press last week that this means both securing and verifying who the voters are, and who is getting on the ballot.

Requiring photo identification at the polling place is not uncommon; 27 other states have laws similar to the one being proposed in Augusta. Sponsors of the legislation have cited factors from voter fraud to the costs associated with town clerks, who take time to verify a voter’s status after a ballot is received, as arguments for its passage.

But Rosser and his colleagues at UMaine, along with other critics of the legislation, say Maine does not have a problem with voter fraud. They also contend that the costs of implementing the change would outweigh any potential benefits.

Secretary of State Charlie Summers, who supports the bill, has said in the past that he favors gradually phasing in any new law that would require photo identification. The language of the bill would also provide free identification to anyone in need.

On Friday, Cebra and members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee were hearing testimony on the bill and strongly considering many of the claims against it, such as those raised by college students such as Rosser, according to an aide in Cebra’s office.

“The best-case scenario,” Rosser said,  “is students get a seat at the table to discuss this issue. That’s my hope with this resolution.”

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