POLL QUESTION

Secretary of State finds no student voter fraud but still pledges to improve system

Charles Summers
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Charles Summers
Posted Sept. 21, 2011, at 3:06 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 22, 2011, at 11:59 a.m.

Poll Question

AUGUSTA, Maine — After a two-month investigation into possible voter fraud by college students and noncitizens, Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers said Wednesday his evidence showed that none of the students committed fraud and only one noncitizen voted in Maine.

Nevertheless, Summers said his investigation confirmed his belief that Maine’s election system is “fragile and vulnerable,” and he vowed to submit legislation in January to fix some of the problems.

“I feel very strongly based on what I’ve laid out here today that we have a situation in the state of Maine that if we don’t try to modernize our election practices and procedures eventually it will lead us down the road where something breaks down,” Summers said Wednesday during a question-and-answer session with reporters. “If that were to happen and I did not try to make good on that you’d be asking, ‘Why didn’t you do something about it?’”

He said he was especially concerned about the workload of municipal clerks on Election Day and the potential for error.

The secretary’s investigation began in late July after Summers was challenged by Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster to look into the voting habits of 206 out-of-state students attending public Maine universities. Webster wanted to know whether those students had established residency in Maine or whether they voted twice — in Maine and in their home state.

Two days after Webster submitted his list to Summers, the secretary launched a broader investigation of possible voter fraud that dates back several years and deals with noncitizens registering to vote.

Summers addressed both students and noncitizens on Wednesday.

One of his findings was that 77 students were registered in Maine and in another state between 2008 and 2010.

Asked whether that constituted fraud, Summers replied: “It is fraud if they intentionally did that. But it’s very difficult to prove [intent].” Summers said he doesn’t intend to further investigate their intentions.

Another finding revealed that five students voted in two different places in the same calendar year — once in primary and again in the general election — but none voted twice in the same election.

Asked whether voting twice in the same year in two separate states constituted fraud, Summers answered: “Technically, it’s not a violation of the law. I’m not sure exactly how patriotic it is.”

Although no students were targeted for voter fraud, they still are under scrutiny. Summers said he has sent letters to dozens of students notifying them that his investigation is complete but he also warned that if they intend to remain residents of Maine, they will need to register their car in the state.

As for noncitizens successfully registering to vote, Summers identified one case from 2002 in which an El Salvadoran voted in Portland even though he was not a U.S. citizen. That person since has been deported, Summers said.

Asked whether one confirmed case of voter fraud was enough to consider the system broken, Summer replied that if one voter is disenfranchised, that’s too many.

The secretary said his findings further support his belief that Mainers should not be allowed to register on Election Day, a provision of state law that was eliminated earlier this year but faces a people’s veto in November.

David Farmer with Protect Maine Votes, the coalition that is aiming to overturn that law, said Summers is playing politics by tying voter fraud to same-day registration.

He said the biggest take-away from Wednesday’s press conference was that Summers “demonstrated that Charlie Webster’s allegations against those 206 students were false, outrageous and perhaps were defamatory.

“They committed no crime yet they were presented as if they had and that’s really inexcusable and it shows a pattern of trying to scare students into not voting.”

Farmer and others were particularly disturbed by the letters sent by Summers to college students regarding car registrations.

“I’m a resident of this state, my registration runs out at the end of the month. Am I going to get a letter from Secretary Summers asking if I intend to vote?” he said.

“By sending a letter to the students questioning their vehicle registration or status of their driver’s licenses, Secretary Summers appears to be trying to scare students into not voting. It’s unconscionable and an abuse of his authority,” he said.

Reached by telephone late Wednesday, Webster said he hadn’t seen the full results of the investigation but he was happy that he has helped push the conversation on improving the integrity of system.

“I knew there would be a number of people on this list who registered to vote and never fulfilled the other requirements of law,” he said. “I feel that many of these students were exploited by whatever group got them there; it could be the Republicans. But my hope is that people better understand what the law requires.”

Summers acknowledged that the sample size of his investigation was small and also said existing law hampered his investigation because municipal clerks are not required to keep data that is more than 3 years old.

That’s something he hopes to change.

Municipal clerks have said that same-day registration is less of a problem than ensuring there is enough time to process absentee ballots, which more and more Mainers are casting. The law that passed last June included a provision to ease that burden on clerks and the people’s veto effort is not seeking to overturn that portion.

Summers said part of his proposed legislation will include better definitions of residency.

In the past, courts have ruled that students can consider a college dormitory their primary residence, which would allow them to vote in that community even if they are not full-time Maine residents.

Asked whether he supported any possible changes to law, Farmer responded: “As soon as [Summers] provides evidence of a problem, we can talk about solutions.”

Although he talked most about students on Wednesday, Summers also addressed questions about the investigation into noncitizens. As part of that investigation, there were allegations that a Bureau of Motor Vehicles employee was asked by a superior to shred documents, a claim disputed by former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

Summers said that part of the investigation is still in the attorney general’s hands.

Click here to read Summers’ full statement.

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