Maine Republicans again attempt to disenfranchise student voters

In what has become a shamefully regular post-election routine from Republican leadership in Maine, we are once again witnessing an explicit attack on the rights of students to vote in Maine elections. This time around, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit thousands of students from registering to vote in Maine: effectively barring students who have moved here from other states from participating in Maine elections.

As I have previously written, going back to 2011 and 2015 Republicans at the state and local level have been attempting to both paint college-age voters as dangers to the fabric of Maine’s democracy and to actively disenfranchise students; first by flatly and falsely accusing hundreds of student of voter fraud in 2011 (not to mention a simultaneous attack on Maine’s same-day voter registration law, which was beaten back by an historic grassroots movement to overturn the ban through referendum), and again in 2015 when activists affiliated with the Lewiston and Androscoggin GOP attempted to go so far as to change the date of Lewiston municipal elections from November to June to prevent students from casting ballots.

Just last November, in an anonymous —but no less destructive— attempt at student-voter suppression, “Legal Advisory” flyers were circulated at Bates College falsely claiming that students hailing from outside of the state could not register to vote in Maine without paying to register and inspect their vehicles here.

(The truth, for what it’s worth, is that by law any person living in Maine for more than 30 days is supposed to register their vehicle here, or is guilty of a traffic infraction with a fine of $50. To vote, one must verify that they are living in Maine, but that verification has nothing to do with the vehicle registration statute. The idea that one triggers the other is simply untrue.)

Fredette’s bill would amend existing statute by explicitly preventing students from listing a campus address for use by registrars in the verification of residency in a way that is so nakedly discriminatory that it is worth quoting in full (the underlined text is Fredette’s proposed language):

“A person does not gain or lose a residence solely because of the person’s presence or absence while employed in the uniformed service or the merchant marine of the United States, while a student in any institution of learning, while kept in any institution at public expense or while residing upon any Indian or military reservations. This subsection may not be construed to prevent a student at any institution of learning from qualifying as a voter in the municipality where the student resides while attending that institution, except that, when an applicant lists a residence address on the voter registration application required under section 152 that is a dormitory or domicile provided by, or located on the campus of, a postsecondary educational institution, the registrar shall verify the applicant’s residency. Residency is considered established when the registrar can verify at least one of the following: A. That the applicant’s state identification card or driver’s license lists the same address as listed on the voter registration application or that the address is on record with the Department of the Secretary of State, Bureau of Motor Vehicles; B. That the applicant has a motor vehicle registered in the State; or C. That the applicant pays personal income tax or property tax to the State.

The attack is explicit, sweeping, and almost certainly unconstitutional. And yet here it is: a clear attempt to disenfranchise young voters, and by extension to send a message to all Maine students that they are not welcome to participate in the political process in our communities. In a time of startling attempts across the country to suppress voters, here is one at our own doorsteps.

This bill is almost certain to die on the floor of the State House, but the fact that one of the Maine GOP’s most senior leaders is proposing this legislation is indicative of a pernicious and appalling trend of disenfranchisement that has infected the Maine Republican Party since the reign of Charlie Webster. Mainers should not abide attempts at political victories that are built by keeping others from exercising their fundamental right to vote, and we should not let our political leaders get away with pushing this kind of disenfranchisement.

The bill, LD 155, will be open for public comment in the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs on the morning of Wednesday, February 15th at 9:00AM, in Room 437 at the State House.

Photo via Andi Parkinson.

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