AUGUSTA, Maine — Charlie Webster sounds a lot like LeRoy Symm.
Symm, the registrar of voters in Waller County, Texas, had a special questionnaire he used for college students. It included questions such as: Do you own property in the county? Where did you attend church? What are your job plans?
If Symm and his deputies knew a voter by name and face, they were simply registered. College students had to pass Symm’s test. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 said this violated the Constitution, thereby establishing the practice of allowing college students to list their dormitory as their residence for the purposes of voting.
Three decades later, the ruling has not deterred Webster, the Maine Republican Party chairman, who weeks ago brandished a list of more than 200 college students he said likely engaged in voter fraud.
“I get tired of talking about this because the law is clear,” Webster said this week. “If I want to vote, I need to establish residency. I need to register my car and pay taxes in that community. You can’t just become a student and vote wherever you want.”
The law is fairly clear, but that’s not what it says.
According to Maine’s Secretary of State’s Office, three things are required of registered voters: They must be a U.S. citizen, they must have established and maintained a residence in the municipality where the person intends to register to vote, and they must be at least 17 to register or 18 to vote.
Citizenship and age are easily addressed. Residence is trickier.
Students have the right to register in the municipality where they attend school as long as they have established residency. They are then subject to the same residency requirements but cannot be asked to meet additional requirements.
Determining established residency is left to municipal clerks and they can consider the following factors in determining established residency: a direct statement or oath, a motor vehicle registration, an income tax return, a piece of mail listing a current address or any other objective facts.
Despite Webster’s beliefs, though, none of these elements are required.
Furthermore, in 2008 then-Attorney General Steven Rowe issued an opinion about this matter in connection with a Republican-backed bill that sought to prohibit college students living on campus from registering to vote in that community.
That bill ultimately failed, but Rowe’s opinion was that the responsibility of determining a voter’s residence lies with municipal voting officials. He also said any state law prohibiting students living in dormitories to assert that it is their residence would be deemed unconstitutional, because of the Symm case.
Consider the case of Christopher Knoblock. He is among the 206 out-of-state students on the list submitted in July by Webster to the secretary of state for investigation of voter fraud. That list of names was obtained by the Bangor Daily News from the Secretary of State’s Office through a Freedom of Information request.
Knoblock, a native of Belmont, Mass., first registered to vote in his hometown and state in 2007 after he turned 18. He then voted in Massachusetts in the February 2008 presidential primary.
In the fall of 2008, Knoblock attended the University of Maine and lived on campus. In November of that year, he wanted to vote in the general presidential election. So he registered on campus in Orono.
It never occurred to him to unregister in his hometown, and there is no legal obligation to do so. Updating of voter rolls by towns and the state is meant to capture people who have moved from one community to another and automatically delete those who have registered in a new community.
The next summer, Knoblock was still a student at UMaine and voted in the state’s same-sex marriage referendum.
He moved off campus shortly after that. When the next election came up, in November 2010, Knoblock voted back home in Massachusetts. He never unregistered in Orono.
“I’m surprised to be on this list and I’m surprised that it’s an issue that I voted in Maine at all,” he said. “We were encouraged to vote when we were on campus, and we were told that voting on campus was legal. I think this unfairly targets out-of-state students, as it’s much harder for those of us who are out of state to vote via absentee.”
Orono Town Clerk Wanda Thomas confirmed that Knoblock voted in Maine in 2008 and 2009 but not in 2010. A clerk in Belmont, Mass., confirmed that Knoblock voted there last fall.
While voting officials don’t like the fact that someone can be registered in two different places at the same time, it does not constitute fraud.
“It’s actually fairly common and not just with college students,” said Ellen O’Brien Cushman, town clerk in Knoblock’s hometown of Belmont, Mass. “Municipalities do their very best to verify residency, but it’s not necessarily the responsibility of a voter to unregister.”
Many of the 206 names on Webster’s list, however, probably never should have been on the list in the first place. Notes attached to the list of names containing comments from Webster indicate that as many as half of them never registered in their home states.
Presumably, those students registered for the first time in Maine, voted in the November 2010 election and therefore committed no fraud.
That was the case for Justin Lynch, a third-year UMaine student from Ballston Spa, N.Y. Lynch said he, too, was surprised to be on the list because he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong. He called the claims by Webster, “a shocking act of government intimidating young people.”
“I have always been proud of the way Maine’s day of registration system was set up,” he said. “It encourages younger people to vote. It encourages everyone to vote for that matter because it takes away the complicated registration system other states have.”
If someone never registered in their home state, they could not have voted there. So why did Webster include names of students who clearly did not commit fraud?
Asked that question, the GOP chairman elicited a laugh and said he was frustrated trying to explain the situation.
“I have no idea whether they obeyed the law,” Webster said. “So I can’t accuse them.”
Only he did accuse them. He explicitly said his cursory research was evidence of “deliberate voter fraud.”
Webster’s claims drew immediate criticism from Democrats in July.
Still, Secretary of State Charlie Summers — former vice chairman of the Maine GOP under Webster — said he would investigate based on the seriousness of the allegations.
Less than a week later, though, Summers informed the public that he would roll Webster’s allegations into a broader probe. Some felt that was an effort to downplay Webster’s claims.
“He doesn’t want students to vote in Maine. Everything else he’s said has been a smokescreen,” said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. “The key issue is people voting in more than one place and that hasn’t happened.”
Although the Secretary of State’s Office investigation is not complete, there is no evidence to suggest that anyone on the list acted deliberately to commit fraud, as Webster suggested. And fraud exists when a voter has voted twice in the same election, something that has not been proven.
Many Democrats believe Webster and the Maine Republican Party are trying to suppress the voting rights of college students, a group that more often than not votes Democratic. They also have asserted that Webster’s witch hunt and Summers’ investigation were meant to inject fear into the minds of voters as they prepare to consider a people’s veto effort of a recently passed law that repealed same-day registration.
But Webster believes he has addressed a problem that has gone unchecked for 40 years under the Democrats’ control. Maine is such a small state, he said, that local races can be won in some cases by only a handful of votes.
“We’ll let this play out,” he said. “I’m willing to take the criticism I’m getting. What I find bizarre is that anyone would think I would bring up something that wasn’t a problem.”