June 21, 2018
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Too few people vote. GOP shouldn’t intimidate those who do.

Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Orono residents waiting to register to vote wait in line at the University of Maine New Balance Student Recreation Center on Nov. 8, 2016.

Yet again, a Republican politician is trying to intimidate college voters in Lewiston. This time it was the city’s new mayor, Shane Bouchard, who sent a letter warning newly registered voters they could soon face penalties if they hadn’t registered their cars in the state or gotten Maine driver’s licenses.

“I would like to remind you that along with the right to vote in state and local elections come certain duties and responsibilities,” Bouchard wrote in the letter, which was sent in February. He then cites registering a motor vehicle, obtaining a Maine license and complying with Maine income tax laws.

Bouchard said he was just reminding newly registered voters of the state’s laws in the letter that strung together the state’s unrelated voting, vehicle registration, driver’s license and income tax requirements. The letter was sent to 221 people, including Bates College students, who registered to vote in the final months of last year.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap challenged Bouchard’s assertions. The right to vote is independent of motor vehicle registration and licensing requirements, he wrote in a March 9 letter to Bouchard.

“I do not believe, in the context of voter participation, that offering foreboding warnings of dire consequences from failing to oblige administrative requirements attendant to establishing residency can be construed as anything other than an effort to discourage our fellow Americans from participating in their constitutional right to self-governance,” Dunlap wrote in March 9 letter to Bouchard.

Bouchard’s letter, which was not reviewed or approved by the Lewiston City Council comes after other GOP officials have tried for years to intimidate — and even disqualify — college student voters in Maine, particularly in Lewiston.

Maine allows out-of-state college students to vote in Maine if they spend most of their time in the state. They can list their dormitory, apartment or other housing as their residence for the purpose of voting. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has backed this standard.

But that hasn’t stopped a continuing string of Republican efforts to strip students of their voting rights.

In 2011, then Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster alleged that more than 200 college students had committed voter fraud by casting ballots here but not establishing residency in Maine. Then-Secretary of State Charlie Summers, also a Republican, did an investigation and found no voter fraud.

Before his investigation was complete, however, Summers sent letters to the students on Webster’s list threatening to fine them if they did not obtain a Maine driver’s license and register their cars in the state. If they did not do this, they should rescind their voter registration in Maine, Summers said in the letter. He did this despite the fact that there is no requirement that Maine voters have cars registered in the state or hold a Maine driver’s license. About 100 of the students withdrew their Maine voter registration.

Shortly before the Nov. 8, 2016 election, someone put flyers on cars at Bates College making the same false claim — that students must have a Maine driver’s license and register their vehicles in Maine in order to vote.

Last year, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, now a Republican candidate for governor, introduced legislation adding requirements for college students — but only college students — to register to vote, including that they register a vehicle in Maine or pay personal income taxes in the state. Voting rules that discriminate against students or any other specific group are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled in 1979. Lawmakers rejected the bill.

The biggest problem with elections in Maine and the United States is that not enough people vote. Officials should turn their attention to increasing turnout, not scaring people away.

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