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Ballot Box Bullies

Maine deserves better than election policies founded on scare tactics.

  • Lee Rowland
October 19, 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.