The work of President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission burst into the headlines again this week, after the group’s leader, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, claimed that Democrats stole a U.S. Senate race and presidential Electoral College votes in New Hampshire because more than 5,000 people voted in that state without holding New Hampshire driver’s licenses.
If this sounds familiar, it is because Republican officials have repeatedly made similar claims in Maine.
Writing for the rabidly right-wing website Breitbart, Kobach said he had “proof” of voter fraud in New Hampshire: 6,540 people registered to vote and cast ballots voted on Nov. 8, 2016 in that state. By Aug. 30, 2017, only 1,014 of those voters had been issued driver’s licenses in the Granite State and only about 200 had registered vehicles there. By Kobach’s calculation that left 5,526 people who voted illegally in New Hampshire in November.
Except — and this a big except — there are thousands of college students living in New Hampshire, many of them from out of state. It was completely legal for them to vote in New Hampshire while carrying a driver’s license from another state.
With just an hour’s worth of effort, Dave Weigel of the Washington Post found and interviewed four voters included in the New Hampshire list. They all attended college in New Hampshire in November 2016 but had driver’s licenses from other states.
This year, New Hampshire tightened requirements for voter registration in an effort, Republican lawmakers said, to keep college students from other states from turning elections in favor of Democrats. The legislation also includes penalties — up to a $5,000 fine and jail time — for not providing the required documentation for registration within 30 days of an election.
Just hours before the voter fraud commission was set to meet in New Hampshire, a state superior court justice put the penalties that were part of Senate Bill 3 on hold and cast doubt on the state’s evidence of voter fraud. “The average voter seeking to register for the first time very well may decide that casting a vote is not worth a possible $5,000 fine, a year in jail, or throwing himself/herself at the mercy of the prosecutor’s ‘discretion,’” Justice Charles Temple wrote in his Sept. 12 ruling that came as polls were opening for a special election for a seat in the New Hampshire House, which a Democrat won. “To the Court, these provisions of SB 3 act as a very serious deterrent on the right to vote, and if there is indeed a ‘compelling’ need for them, the Court has yet to see it.”
Maine has been through this witch hunt as well. Blaming college students for stealing elections was a frequent theme for former Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster.
In 2011, 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, a Republican, did an investigation and found no voter fraud.
Before his investigation was complete, 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.
Like New Hampshire, 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 doesn’t stop efforts to suppress college student votes. 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.
Rather than unlawfully try to restrict the voting rights of college students, Republicans could try to actually win their votes. They could adopt an agenda and recruit candidates that appeal to young voters.