Republican initiative seeks to prevent Lewiston students from voting
Many of my peers in the Maine organizing space came of age in 2011, when in that summer Governor LePage and then-Chairman of the Maine Republican Party Charlie Webster pushed a bill through the Legislature ending Maine’s four-decade long tradition of allowing same-day voter registration, in the interest of fighting against potential cases of voter fraud that had never been found to actually exist.
The ensuing grassroots campaign to overturn this law through ballot initiative blossomed across the state, with a broad coalition of pro-democracy activists collecting more than 70,000 signatures in less than a month to get the question on the 2011 ballot. The campaign to restore same-day voter registration won in all of our 16 counties, defeating the opposition by a 2-1 margin. This victory came despite Mr. Webster attempting to frame the discussion around a (now completely discredited) list of around 200 students at the University of Maine at Farmington (where I was attending at the time) that he personally accused of voter fraud tangentially tied to the same-day registration question.
Mainers, for all of our increasing political divisiveness, have continued to stand united in ensuring that our elections remain open, fair, and robust, leading the ongoing national conversation about free and fair electoral contests. The attempts to divide us on this fundamental issue, however, have become as predictable as they are pernicious: go after college students.
Just like in 2011, youth participation in the political process has become a focal point in conservative attacks on the electoral process. This time around, a group of Lewiston conservatives, led by former Republican state senate candidate Patti Gagne and former Republican mayoral candidate Luke Jensen, announced that they are seeking to amend the Lewiston charter to move off-year municipal elections to June, rather than the standard “first Tuesday after the first Monday of November.” While Gagne claimed that the effort is aimed at making it easier for so-called “snowbirds–” older folks that winter in the South and come back to Maine in the summer– to vote, the Sun Journal was quick to point out that this effort would have the much more immediate impact of keeping Bates College students (who attend classes from September to May) from participating in the election.
In fact, Jensen later admitted in a Facebook post that this was the main reason for the effort, writing that “College students may have the legal right to vote, but that doesn’t mean participating in local elections is the ethical thing to do.”
The issue of Bates students voting in Lewiston has drawn increasing attention since last year, when Ms. Gagne lost under 100 votes to Democrat Nate Libby, who did significantly better than his opponent in the two wards in which Bates students vote. In this year’s mayoral race, progressive candidate Ben Chin beat conservative incumbent Bob Macdonald by significant margins in these wards on his way to a first-place finish in the first round of voting with 44% in the five-way race.
Despite cases of outright voter intimidation against Bates students by some community members this year, it is completely legal for these students to register and vote in local elections. Rather than pushing college students out of local engagement we should be finding more ways for them to participate in our community and remain in L/A after graduation (as Ben himself did after graduating from Bates).
As it was in 2011, young people are a red herring in a policy proposal that would ultimately lower voter participation across the board and hurt the democratic process by making off year elections in the city less visible and thus less accessible for those voters most in need of representation and a voice in local government. I hope that Lewiston residents see beyond cynical debates about whether our students are truly members of the community and see this for what it is: an obstacle to voter participation and an inhibitor of the democratic process.
Jensen went so far to argue that moving the municipal election to June would somehow increase voter turnout– a statement that is demonstrably false. June elections in off years are in fact some of the least attended, to the point that as I understand it Auburn at one time held municipal elections in June, but has since moved them to November in an effort to increase turnout in the face of dwindling voter participation.
Promoting access to the ballot and safeguarding elections is something that Maine has shown a remarkable ability to do. Let’s not let ourselves take a step backward.
Photo via Flickr/davidgalestudios
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