Lewiston mayor tries to scare student voters away from polls

In what has become a distressingly perennial event, Lewiston’s conservative political establishment is once again in the news for using its resources to confuse, intimidate, and suppress young and new voters.

Last week, over 200 recently registered voters in Lewiston, roughly a third of whom are students at Bates College, received an official letter from Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard “thanking” those voters for being part of Lewiston’s civic community before warning those individuals that registering to vote qualifies as a declaration of residency in the state of Maine, triggering a series of financial hooks that include requirements to obtain a Maine driver’s license and registering any vehicles within the state.

Student groups at Bates, representing a constituency that votes consistently for Democratic candidates, said the letter reminded them of past attempts to directly intimidate student voters at Bates from participating in local elections–efforts that have occurred with regular frequency over the past several years. Far from speaking alone, however, the students were joined in their condemnation by Lewiston City Council president Kristen Cloutier and Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, fresh from his fights for voting rights at the national level against the Trump administration.

In a letter addressed directly to Mayor Bouchard, Dunlap chastised Bouchard, saying of Bouchard’s letter that it it could not “be construed as anything other than an effort to discourage our fellow Americans from participating in their constitutional right to self-governance–whether [Bouchard] intend[ed] that to be the message or not.”

It’s not that Bouchard is wrong about the law, exactly. It is indeed true that only Maine residents can vote in Maine elections, and that all Maine residents are required by law to do such things as register their cars in the state. Where the letter–and the similar tactics that have come before it–moves into the territory of disingenuous intimidation its implication of a causal connection between those two legal truths.

Plainly put, state law requires a voter to prove that their residency has been established in order to register to vote, and residency can be demonstrated through such things as proof of a mailing address in the voting district, the address listed on that person’s vehicle registration, or the address on a person’s driver’s license. A person who registers to vote in Maine is a resident whether they register to vote or not. Registering to vote is simply an affirmation that that residency has indeed been established.

The logic that Bouchard and those before him are using is backwards: voting in Maine does not magically make a person a resident if they were not one already, it simply confirms a status that already existed. A resident who registers to vote is no more on the hook for state taxes and fees than a resident who does not register to vote. Registering to vote is a sufficient, but not necessary, condition to prove that one is a resident of the state. To frame it as anything else is to imply that Maine has a retroactive poll tax on any person who registers to vote in the state, which is simply not the case. And to target new voters specifically with this message reveals the true intent of the message. This is not about paying vehicle registration fees, this is about scaring residents out of the polling place.

The Lewiston-Auburn community, Maine’s second largest metropolitan area, has in recent years become one of the state’s most intense electoral battlegrounds, with contests up and down the ballot becoming less predictable. Elections for mayor, state Legislature, or Congress can be decided in the Twin Cities by vote margins as low as the single digits. Cynical politicians would try to find an edge in that divided field by keeping opposing voters off of the rolls rather than trying to win them over.

Despite the regularity of the attempt, it’s a tactic that can never be normalized in a representative democracy.

And so here we go again.

About Grady Burns

Avatar photoGrady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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