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‘Voting Integrity’ or Voter Suppression? Pair of Bills Take Aim at College Voters

Mark Vogelzang
Maine Public
Voters cast ballots in Scarborough in 2012.

Voting rights advocates and college students in Maine are hoping to defeat a pair of bills that could make it more difficult for some people to vote.

The Legislature will hold a public hearing on Wednesday to weigh the proposals, which have emerged at a time when Republican leaders, including the president, are saying the electoral system is wrought with voter fraud.

The bill sponsored by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette deals with a section of voting law dealing with people who tend to move around — military service members and college students. But Fredette’s bill only targets students.

It would require them to do one of three things before they can vote: register their car in Maine, prove they pay income or property taxes or show a driver’s license with a residence that matches where they want to vote.

Fredette says the proposal is simple, to ensure that college students claiming Maine residency on Election Day are actually residents.

“The last thing I want to do is disenfranchise anyone from voting,” he says. “However, we do have a Constitution and the Constitution says you in fact have to be a resident to vote.”

But opponents have a different view.

“Any time that a bill targets a specific population for stricter rules before they can vote, that is voter suppression and it is unconstitutional,” says Oami Amarasingham of the ACLU of Maine.

Amarasingham says Fredette’s bill contributes to voter suppression because it singles out a specific type of voter. Right now, college students are treated like everyone else who wants to vote here. To register, all they need is a utility bill or something else that shows they’re living here.

Amarasingham says that by restricting the proof of residency options for college students, the bill makes it harder for them to vote.

Ali Rabideau is a senior at Bates College and a co-leader of Bates Student Action. She says the bill embodies the rhetoric and electioneering tactics she has witnessed in Lewiston.

Two years ago fliers falsely claiming that students couldn’t vote were distributed on campus during the run-up to a contentious mayoral election. Rabideau says some people in Lewiston are hostile to out-of-state college students participating in local elections.

“It’s publicly been expressed frequently to us as students that people aren’t always as happy — some people aren’t always as happy — with our ability to vote here,” she says.

Radideau and other students received a similar message on Election Day, when Gov. Paul LePage threatened to investigate those from out of state who voted, but who did not register their cars or obtain Maine driver’s licenses. At the time, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, sharply criticized the governor’s remarks as an attempt to intimidate college voters.

Gabe Frankel, a member of the Bowdoin College Democrats, says Fredette’s bill is basically a legislative vehicle to gerrymander an electorate that doesn’t favor Republicans.

“It does follow a trend of politicians trying to put up legal obstacles for voting blocs who might pose a threat to their electoral chances,” he says.

Frankel is from New York City. Rabideau is from Massachusetts. From Fredette’s perspective, the two students don’t have strong connections to the communities they live in during college. Yet, Fredette says, college students can influence local elections, such as a city council race, school budget votes or local construction bonds.

“I mean if you’re pulling into Bates College and you got a Florida plate on your car, I have tough time feeling that that’s someone who’s pretty connected to the community,” he says.

But Bates senior Meghan Lynch says such generalizations aren’t fair. Lynch, after all, is from Scarborough.

“I can name all my city councilors in Lewiston and who all my state reps are here in Lewiston. But I can’t do the same for Scarborough, to be honest. So I think that speaks to my commitment to Lewiston and my college town,” she says. “A lot of students kind of come into their political awakening, if you will, while at college when they’re not living under their parents’ roof and when they’re able to vote finally.”

But there’s more at issue here than traditional town and gown tensions. The title of Fredette’s bill includes the words “voting integrity” — those buzzwords are often deployed when lawmakers say they’re guarding against election or voter fraud.

Mainers, like all Americans, have heard a lot about fraud and rigged elections over the past several months. And it’s coming straight from the White House. Stephen Miller, an aide to President Donald Trump, made these claims just last weekend to ABC News host George Stephanopoulos.

“This morning on this show is not the venue to lay out all the evidence but I can tell you this: Voter fraud is a serious problem in this country. You have millions of people who are registered in two states, who are dead and who are registered to vote,” Miller says.

Miller’s claims earned a sharp rebuke from Stephanopoulos and “four Pinocchios” from the fact checkers at the Washington Post. But Trump continues to assert that voter fraud robbed him of the popular vote against Hillary Clinton.

Among Trump’s claims is that thousands of voters from Massachusetts were bused into New Hampshire to illegally vote there. The president’s claim has been widely debunked by Tom Rath, the former Republican Attorney General in the Granite State, and Fergus Cullen, the former state chairman of the GOP.

Amarasingham says the Trump’s administration’s claims, as well as remarks by Gov. LePage, are a ploy designed to incite fear and pass laws that restrict eligible voters from the polls.

“These are baseless claims. There’s no evidence of fraud in our elections here in Maine or in elections across the country,” she says.

Various studies and investigations back up Amarasingham’s statement. That includes a local investigation by former Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers four years ago. Summers was asked by the Maine GOP to investigate double voting by out-of-state college students. The probe turned up no wrongdoing.

But the lack of evidence has not deterred some from pushing anti-fraud measures. According to a 2014 analysis by the Washington Post, there were 31 credible instances of voter impersonation fraud out of a more than a billion ballots. Yet, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are dozens of anti-fraud bills in GOP-controlled state legislatures across the country. That includes a bill targeting college voters in Maine and New Hampshire.

Nonetheless, Rabideau says she and other students plan to speak out and attend the public hearing on Fredette’s bill and a separate voter ID proposal.

“I think this is something we care a lot about and we’re absolutely going to be fighting for our right to continue voting here,” she says.

Both public hearings are scheduled for Wednesday before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.