College Student Surprised to be Targeted for Voter Fraud
University of Maine student Gilliam Demers was stunned to learn last summer, as she gathered signatures for a voter registration referendum, that she had been accused of breaking the law.
The political science major was even more alarmed when Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers wrote her parents, advising Demers to change her driver’s license registration or cancel her Maine voter registration.
University officials even told students that they could be fined or jailed for up to 10 years if convicted of voter fraud.
Summers wrote that he was investigating alleged voter fraud based on a list of students compiled by state Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster. Webster decried in an interview what he called “rampant fraud” and said that the state made it too easy for persons “to knowingly vote in a place you have no intention of living in.”
It was the most contentious point in a nearly six-month struggle to add strict provisions for voting. Republicans said Maine elections were vulnerable to abuse by ineligible voters, including college students who were from out of state.
In a party-line vote last June, GOP legislators ended Maine’s longtime practice of allowing voter registration on Election Day, moving the deadline two days before elections.
The fight ended in November, when voters overrode the Legislature in a People’s Veto that restored election-day registration. The veto was buoyed by a grass-roots movement and volunteers like Demers.
After the People’s Veto, some of the bill’s supporters questioned the wisdom of pushing the measure.
“This was very partisan, and people weren’t sure if they wanted to do it,” said state Sen. Nichi Farnham, a Republican and chair of the legal affairs committee, which oversees all election bills. “Maybe we didn’t need to change the law.”
At issue was the assertion of fraud.
“No one believes there’s no fraud,” Webster said.
Summers’ investigation of alleged fraud began in July 2011 and included the list of 206 students from Webster, who wanted Summers to investigate every out-of-state student registered to vote in Maine. When they received the letter from Summers, 64 students canceled their Maine voter registration. On advice from the American Civil Liberties Union, Demers did not.
No charges were filed against any of the students who were investigated for fraud.
Only two cases of voter fraud have been presented and successfully prosecuted in Maine, Summers concluded in a Sept. 21 report to the Legislature. But he also wrote that there were hundreds of clerical errors in voter files and many of those mistakes occurred on Election Day.
Summers pushed the Legislature to eliminate election-day registration, arguing that clerks were overworked and that Maine was “headed for a meltdown” because town voting officials couldn’t accurately process all the registrations that they received in one day.
But the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association — the two primary organizations that represent clerks and registrars — supported election-day registration.
“Let’s put it this way; it’s a lot of work,” said Wanda Thomas, who is town clerk in Orono, where the main University of Maine campus is located. “[But] it was a little easier to do it in one day than if all of those students came to this office to register in person before Election Day, because we don’t really have the staff for that.”
The GOP bill called for ending same-day registration in person and by absentee, and set deadlines two business days before the election for both. The clerks’ association only objected to same-day absentee registration.
Maine was among the first states to allow election-day registration, with the law enacted unanimously in 1973.
“Ironically, a Republican state senator from Farmington sponsored the legislation,” said Sen. Barry Hobbins, leader of the Maine Senate Democrats.
Eight states and the District of Columbia place no deadline on voter registration. Other state deadlines vary.
A 2009 Pew Center on the States study concluded that turnout rose by 3 to 5 percent in states that adopted election-day registration.
Proponents of election-day registration argue that ending it would lower voter turnout.
“As Republicans, we didn’t have a lot of good comebacks to that,” Farnham said.
Money poured in on both sides. Veto supporters received more than $1 million, including $400,000 from S. Donald Sussman, a billionaire hedge fund founder who lives in Connecticut and Maine and is married to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents southern Maine.
Veto opponents collected $370,000, including $250,000 from the American Justice Partnership, a Michigan organization formerly associated with the National Association of Manufacturers. The partnership, which does not disclose donors, received $300,000 last year from Crossroads GPS, a “super” political action committee run by GOP strategist Karl Rove.
Veto supporters collected 70,000 signatures by August 2011 to get the issue on the November ballot. The People’s Veto restored in-person, same-day registration, but left the absentee registration deadline in place. It passed with 60 percent of the vote.
“The idea that removing the ability to register on Election Day will protect the vote is truly specious,” said Matt Dunlap, a Democrat who served as Maine secretary of state from 2000 to 2008. “Voter fraud is largely mythology.”
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