Twenty-one-year old Gillian Demers says she was “more than a little afraid” when she received a letter from the state warning she may be breaking the law—by registering to vote. Last September, the University of Maine senior received a letter from Maine’s secretary of state, Republican Charles Summers, questioning her right to vote in her newly adopted state. Two hundred and five other students received the same letter, sent after the state’s GOP chairman, Charlie Webster, asked his GOP colleague to investigate if the students had the right to vote in Maine. Unless she met certain bureaucratic regulations like registering for a Maine driver’s license, Summers’s letter said, Demers would have to revoke her residency or be in violation of a law that could mean up to six months in jail. The letter is just one example of new laws and regulations rolled out largely by Republican-controlled statehouses over the last two years. Purportedly aimed at preventing voter fraud, the laws suppress the votes of students and minorities and, according to court records and interviews with political insiders from both parties, at least some GOP officials know it.
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 ACLU of Maine and two national groups are calling on the secretary of state to apologize to nearly 200 Maine university students for telling them they needed to either get a Maine driver’s license and register their vehicles in Maine or relinquish their right to vote here.
In a five-page letter sent to Secretary of State Charles Summers on Monday, the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Voting Rights Project, and Demos, a national policy and advocacy organization, said Summers targeted the students and sent them a letter the groups called “threatening” and “likely to deter them (the students) from exercising their voting rights.”
A spokesman for the ACLU of Maine said there is no connection between the right to vote and registering a car or getting a driver’s license, and the Secretary of State’s Office should not have tied them together.