Despite being labeled a witch-hunt by some and provoking claims that students’ voting rights are under attack, more than 200 college students are being investigated by the Maine Department of the Secretary of State following allegations of voter fraud.
The active investigation, which involves the Office of the Maine Attorney General, stems from allegations made in July by Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, that 206 out-of-state students violated Maine election laws and committed “deliberate voter fraud” by registering to vote in two places.
Over the summer, Webster requested the names of out-of-state students at the University of Maine, the University of Maine at Farmington, the University of Maine at Machias and the University of Southern Maine’s campus in Gorham.
He then compiled a list that was released publicly with the first initial, hometown and birth date of those he claims were registered to vote both in their hometowns and in the towns that house their schools. Webster contends that this is a clear violation of Maine election law.
The Maine Campus identified seven of the 206 students on the list who attend UMaine.
Two were willing to discuss the issue at length. The others feared they would be further implicated in the controversy.
Webster said out-of-state students do not understand that, for most, registering to vote requires establishing residency, which he claims entails registering a vehicle, obtaining a state-issued identification card and paying taxes in the community where they will vote.
“The only exemption to the law is students. They’re not required to do any of this, and it’s unfortunate because this isn’t how our election system is supposed to work,” Webster said. “Nobody is saying these kids don’t have a right to vote. The problem is, most of them won’t stay here, but they disenfranchise the rights of working class people who live in these towns.”
“Every vote counts, and out-of-state college students should be required to vote absentee, which is the way it’s supposed to work,” he said.
In July, the list was sent to the Department of the Secretary of State, which oversees the Bureau of Elections, with a request from Webster that a preliminary review be conducted.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Caitlin Chamberlain, a spokeswoman with the Department of the Secretary of State, said she expects more details to emerge in the coming months.
Webster said the issue in question is not so much voter fraud as it is enforcing stricter election laws to protect the system from “scamming” and overcrowded polls in larger cities across the state, which he believes deter many from voting.
But there is no evidence to suggest anyone on the list acted deliberately to commit fraud.
Furthermore, contrary to Webster’s claim, Maine election law states that in order to register, a voter simply has to declare Maine as his or her place of residence.
Registering in two towns is not illegal, nor is it a criterion by the definition of voter fraud. Voting twice in the same election, however, is considered voter fraud.
And U.S. Supreme Court precedent isn’t on Webster’s side.
A 1979 decision ruled a Texas county’s registrar of voters’ test for students registering to vote, which included questions regarding property ownership and future job plans in the area, was unconstitutional. Before the ruling, if those students didn’t pass that test, they couldn’t vote.
In the time since the list was submitted to the Department of the Secretary of State, Democrats have assailed Webster’s efforts.
In July, when Webster submitted his findings to the Department of the Secretary of State, his timing coincided with the apex of a people’s referendum effort undertaken by Protect Maine Votes, a coalition of 18 activist groups seeking to overturn a law enacted in June by the legislature that eliminated same-day voter registration.
The more than 70,000 signatures the groups gathered throughout the summer will be verified by the Department of the Secretary of State, and pending verification of those signatures, the referendum will appear on this November’s ballot.
Verification the problem?
Webster admitted that one of his motivations for compiling the voter fraud list was to educate the public on the perils of same-day registration and the potential for voter fraud, which threaten the election system’s integrity.
“When you have 500 students registering on the day of an election, there is no way to make sure that these students aren’t registered and voting somewhere else,” he said.
Webster added that both Democrats and what he called the “welfare coalitions” that comprise Protect Maine Votes would never object to same day registration or current election laws because they enable them to “flood the polls with voters who they know will vote for their candidates.”
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House Minority Leader, disagrees.
“It’s unfortunate that this has become a partisan issue. It should be about doing what’s right. I know some Republicans who are outraged that we are even having this conversation,” she said. “Just because Charlie Webster doesn’t like the way the law is written doesn’t mean students have broken the law.”
Cain said that the issue of voter fraud in Maine is virtually nonexistent. Additionally, she said that the state’s electronic voting system prevents fraud and immediately identifies those who have voted in two places.
Cain’s sentiment was echoed by a number of town clerks from Bangor, Brewer and Orono who agreed that most town offices in Maine don’t encounter widespread voter fraud problems.
But Wanda Thomas, Orono’s town clerk, said those responsible for get-out-the-vote efforts on college campuses could make extra efforts to verify information included on voter registration cards that are dropped off at town offices on behalf of the students who fill them out.
“I’m sitting on the fence on this one. We are not involved in this investigation,” she said. “But elections are very labor-intensive, and the more prepared everyone is, the cleaner the election process. I think the point here is the laws need more clarification.”
Webster’s allegations have been met with everything from skepticism to an outright uproar — especially from students who say they have been falsely accused and should not be named on the list.
‘I am not welcome here’
Rebecca Holmes, 19, a second-year psychology student at UMaine from Milford, N.H., is one of the 206 students implicated as fraudulent voters. She said her inclusion is an error.
“I had never been registered to vote before living on campus,” she said. “When I registered to vote at [UMaine], it was because I had checked to make sure I was allowed to vote on campus, then I decided that I wanted to vote in the town and state that I was going to be spending the majority of my time in for the next four years.”
Holmes took matters into her own hands and called Webster to confront him about the evidence used to accuse her.
She said when she “pressed him for answers and facts,” he grew frustrated, and told her he did not have a copy of the list, making it impossible to verify whether she was named.
“I absolutely feel like my voting rights are being undermined,” she said. “The message that I, as a young adult who has come to Maine to create a life, have received from this investigation and from Charlie Webster is that I am not welcome here.”
“The knowledge that a future employer could find my name in connection to an investigation for fraud, and that such a connection could damage my chances at getting hired, is scary,” Holmes said. “Mostly, though, I would say that it has made me feel empowered. I am just now realizing how hard I will fight for something I believe in.”
Webster said he did not want to put himself in a position of doing something wrong by making the names of those on the list public, leading to potentially false accusations.
Christopher Knoblock, 22, a fourth-year communication student from Belmont, Mass., said he was unaware his name appeared on the list until he was contacted by a reporter from the Bangor Daily News last month.
“I feel that prohibiting out-of-state students from voting where they spend nine months out of the year is ridiculous,” he said. “I actually spend less than two weeks a year in Massachusetts, as I work in Maine during the summer and have for the past six years. The issues in Maine affect me more.”
Knoblock said he “found it interesting” that despite not being registered with a party, he tends to almost always vote along Webster’s Republican platform.
Webster, however, is unapologetic.
“My critics can call me the boogeyman all they want, but, believe it or not, I’ve been trying to change this law for 30 years,” he said.
“I’m on a mission to make Maine a better place.”