Ballot Box Bullies

Maine deserves better than election policies founded on scare tactics.

October 18, 2011

Sometimes political operatives go too far.  Opponents of Maine’s long-standing and popular same-day voter registration system killed it in the legislature this year – but they still have to face an unhappy public at the polls.   Sadly, their main campaign tactic appears to be producing lists that smear the good names of Maine residents, and the integrity of the state’s elections, with unfounded insinuations of election crimes.

First there was the list of 206: 206 students living at the University of Maine, who had come to identify Maine as their new home, but paid out-of-state tuition under the University’s strict rules.  Suddenly a politician holds a press conference, and their hometowns, initials, and birth dates appear on a blacklist of students that “may have committed voter fraud.”    The secretary of state then folded this list into a serious criminal investigation, which proceeded in spite of the easily-discovered fact that the sole criterion used to compile it – that the 206 paid out-of-state tuition – has nothing to do with their eligibility to vote in Maine.

The secretary recently confirmed that his investigation of the list revealed no evidence of fraud, but inexplicably, even as he affirmed that students have every legal right to vote where they live, he questioned their patriotism for doing so. The ACLU of Maine and allied organizations wrote Maine Secretary of State Charles Summers today, demanding he send a new letter clarifying these voters’ rights and correcting the record.

Then came the list of 19: 19 young adults who availed themselves of Maine’s longstanding tradition of election day registration in 2004.  But these voters registered from a nontraditional residence – the Holiday Inn.  Rather than simply ask “why?” partisans started pounding tables in September, using this “uncovered” evidence as proof that Mainers should vote to uphold the repeal of same-day registration. 

It took a simple phone call to discover that during the 2004 school year, the entire Holiday Inn was, in fact, a St. Joseph’s College dorm housing transfer students whose campus had been ravaged by Hurricane Ivan.  Long after the hotel confirmed this fact to the media, the press release “revealing” these students remains on a state political party’s website, ignoring the far less scandalous truth.  The only thing these 19 Mainers appear to be guilty of is having had the gall to be displaced by a natural disaster during an election year.

These are two new verses in the same old tune.

The Brennan Center for Justice has monitored and investigated claims of voter fraud for years. We have consistently found that accusations of voter fraud are amplified out of all proportion to reality, and that they frequently reach a crescendo when their appearance would assist one side in a bitter political fight over elections.

Cavalier accusations that someone “may have” committed a crime come at a real price.  One Maine student from the list of 206 has written that he fears his future reputation will be tarnished by his name’s quickly-deduced association with a serious election crime. And the victims are not only the targeted students, but every Maine student who hears serious criminal accusations tossed around by politicos and thinks twice about voting in such an intimidating atmosphere. Would you risk casting a perfectly legal ballot if you thought your tuition status or dorm residence might just win you a spot on the next public blacklist?

There’s a reason that opponents of same-day registration couch their accusations with disclaimers, clear their targets of crimes but call them unpatriotic, or use words like “uncovered” without actually identifying a wrong.  It’s simple: there’s no proof any of these students did a single thing wrong.  Maine’s election law includes numerous safeguards to prevent fraudulent registrations on election day or any other day.  The Maine Town and City Clerks Association – the front line protecting Maine’s election integrity - testified that they were concerned the repeal of same-day registration would disenfranchise voters, not protect them.  For 37 years, Maine clerks have successfully registered thousands of voters on election day.

That’s why lists built on misinformation and innuendo are the best arguments that same-day registration opponents have to wield. 

There is one list that is relevant to the debate over election day registration – the list of 50,000.  More than 50,000 Mainers relied on same-day registration to vote in 2008 on days now eliminated under the law. Indeed, as the Bangor Daily News reported, Mainers who have taken advantage of same-day registration include nine lawmakers who voted to repeal it and Governor LePage, who signed the bill into law. Despite the claims of opponents, there’s no evidence that any of these voters did so fraudulently – just conveniently. 

So when the next trumped-up accusation of fraud hits the media – and it will – watch as these claims unravel after even the most cursory investigation.  Maine deserves better than election policies founded on scare tactics.