Once again, tales will be told about the threat college-age voters pose to Maine elections.
That’s because House Minority Leader Ken Fredette has 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. The bill euphemistically says it will protect “voting integrity.”
Lawmakers shouldn’t buy it.
First, voting rules that discriminate against students or any other specific group are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled so in 1979.
The Texas case involved a county tax assessor who required students at a university in his county to fill out a lengthy questionnaire before he would consider registering them to vote. The assessor, LeRoy Symm, testified he allowed people known to him or his deputies and people whose names appeared on county tax rolls to register to vote, but others, including the students at the predominantly black university, were required to fill out the questionnaire.
A federal district court ruled that Symm’s system violated the Constitution, including the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age in America to 18. The Supreme Court affirmed this ruling without comment.
Fredette’s bill, LD 155, which targets only college students but not retirees or others who don’t live in Maine full time, would face the same constitutionality problems. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that college students can list a dormitory as their primary residence. For the purposes of voting, residence is defined as “that place where the person has established a fixed and principal home to which the person, whenever temporarily absent, intends to return.” Residency can be documented by a piece of mail, a hunting license, motor vehicle license, a personal statement or other means.
Second, the threat of voter fraud — long stirred up without evidence by Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage and now President Donald Trump — is way overblown. But voter fraud is cited as a reason to require that voters show identification to obtain a ballot, which another bill, LD 121, sponsored by Rep. Bradlee Farrin, R-Norridgewock, would require. This bill, too, is unnecessary.
A commission empaneled by former Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, a staunch supporter of voter ID, found no evidence of voter fraud and recommended against a voter ID requirement in 2013.
“A voter ID law is unnecessary as there is little or no history in Maine of voter impersonation or identification fraud,” the panel wrote in its report. It said such a law would make it more difficult for homeless, African-American, elderly, poor and rural voters to access the polls.
Nationally, Jason Leavitt, a Loyola Law School professor, did a comprehensive analysis of voter fraud allegations between 2000 and 2014 and found 31 instances nationwide with credible evidence of potential fraud that may have been addressed through voter ID laws. He found another 13 cases of potential voter impersonation that such laws would not have stopped. That’s out of over 1 billion ballots cast in that period.
“[B]y any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare,” Leavitt wrote in a 2007 report for the Brennan Center for Justice. He found most instances of alleged voter fraud are instead clerical errors made by election officials.
Fredette’s and Farrin’s bills are scheduled for public hearings before the Legislature’s Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs on Wednesday morning.
Let’s be clear: These proposals are not about voting integrity. They are about suppressing votes.
In 2011, then-Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster accused 206 college students in Maine of engaging in voter fraud. The secretary of state’s office — then led by Summers, a Republican — investigated and found no fraud. Despite this finding, Summers sent a letter to the students telling them they must register their cars in Maine or unenroll as voters, although this is not what state law requires. About 100 students withdrew their Maine voter registration.
Last year, shortly before the Nov. 8 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.
The biggest problem with elections in Maine and the United States is that not enough people vote. Some elections have turnout as low as 10 percent. Lawmakers should turn their attention to increasing turnout, not turning people away.