Maine ACLU calls on secretary of state to apologize to students

Charles Summers
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Charles Summers
Posted Oct. 18, 2011, at 5:02 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 18, 2011, at 12:44 p.m.

The ACLU of Maine and two national groups are calling on the secretary of state to apologize to nearly 200 Maine university students for telling them they needed to either get a Maine driver’s license and register their vehicles in Maine or relinquish their right to vote here.

In a five-page letter sent to Secretary of State Charles Summers on Monday, the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Voting Rights Project, and Demos, a national policy and advocacy organization, said Summers targeted the students and sent them a letter the groups called “threatening” and “likely to deter them (the students) from exercising their voting rights.”

A spokesman for the ACLU of Maine said there is no connection between the right to vote and registering a car or getting a driver’s license, and the Secretary of State’s Office should not have tied them together.

The three groups asked Summers to immediately write another letter to the students telling them they were cleared of voter fraud in an earlier investigation and are also under no obligation to relinquish their right to vote in Maine. The groups additionally asked Summers to issue a public statement clearly stating that none of the students was found to have violated election law. And they called on him to stop “further targeted efforts to harass, intimidate or coerce these or other legally registered Maine voters.”

“We believe that Secretary Summers owes these students an apology,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “We think that he’s violated the federal Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution, and something needs to be done about it.”

Caitlin Chamberlain, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said Summers had received the groups’ letter but had no comment Monday.

At issue is a one-page letter sent by Summers in September to about 200 Maine university students. That letter cited Maine election law, which requires that voters be Maine residents, and state motor vehicle laws, which require that new residents who drive get a Maine driver’s licence and register their vehicles here. He requested that students “take appropriate action to comply with our motor vehicle laws within the next 30 days.” If students decided they weren’t residents after all, he asked them to fill out an enclosed form to cancel their Maine voter registration.

State Republican Chairman Charles Webster had passed the students’ names on to Summers, alleging potential voter fraud based on the fact they were registered to vote in Maine but were also enrolled in Maine’s public university system as out-of-state students. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it’s legal for out-of-state college students to vote where they’re living for school, he feared they were voting in Maine and in another state. At the time of Webster’s allegations, Summers asked the Maine Attorney General’s Office to investigate the students.

The AG’s Office would not confirm whether it found enough cause to investigate, but it did say it made no written determination regarding Summers’ request.

In September, Summers went public with his own investigation, saying Maine’s election system was “incredibly vulnerable” to fraud but that he found no cases of wrongdoing by the students.

But as he publicly exonerated the students, Summers sent nearly all of them a letter. That letter mentioned the investigation, but it did not say the students were exonerated. Instead, it said, “I am writing to inform you that this investigation is now closed and to convey some important information pertaining to your voter registration and residency status, based on the results of the investigation.” It then asked the students to either get a Maine driver’s license and register their cars in Maine or relinquish their right to vote here.

But Heiden said Summers drafted an unenroll form just to send to the students, leading his group to believe Summers’ goal was to get the students off the state’s voting rolls.

“That form didn’t exist before,” Heiden said. “He created an unenroll form and sent it to students that were handpicked by the chair of the state Republican party.”

Summers has said the letter was not an attempt to scare anyone away from voting. But Heiden said he’s heard from students who were worried about voting after getting the letter.

“Many of the students are very concerned and are afraid about whether they’re able to vote here in Maine,” Heiden said.

If Summers doesn’t respond to the groups’ requests, Heiden said they have a list of options, including taking legal action, formally asking the U.S. Department of Justice or the Maine Attorney General to get involved, or asking the state Legislature to look at the Secretary of State’s actions.

“We have a lot of options and we’re still weighing those,” he said. “We’re certainly not taking any options off the table.”

 

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