The latest voter suppression tactic employed by Republicans can be found in Maine, where last week the Secretary of State sent a threatening letter to hundreds of college students who were legally registered to vote in Maine, floating the possibility of election law violation and encouraging them to re-register elsewhere.
The letter explained that Maine Secretary of State Charles Summers was writing because he “was presented with a list of 206 University of Maine students with out-of-state home addresses and asked to investigate allegations of election law violations.” That list was provided to him not by an uninterested citizen, but rather the Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster, who has accused these students of voter fraud.
In his letter, Summers informed the recipient that “our research shows you have registered to vote as a resident of Maine,” before going on to strongly imply that the students did not meet the state definition for “residence of a person”. Summers went on to encourage the students to re-register in another state, telling them that if “you are no longer claiming to be a Maine resident, I ask that you complete the enclosed form to cancel your voter registration in Maine.” Here is the relevant section of the letter:
On July 25, 2001, I was presented with a list of 206 University of Maine students with out-of-state home addresses and asked to investigate allegations of election law violations.[…]
Our research shows you have registered to vote as a resident of Maine. Maine’s election law (Title 21-A of the Maine Revised Statutes, section 111, subsection 1) defines “residence of a person” as “that place where the person has established a fixed and principal home to which the person, whenever temporarily absent, intends to return.” […]
If you are currently using an out-of-state driver’s license or motor vehicle registration, I ask that you take appropriate action to comply with out motor vehicle laws within the next 30 days (i.e. by October 20, 2011). If, instead, you are no longer claiming to be a Maine resident, I ask that you complete the enclosed form to cancel your voter registration in Maine so that out our central voter registration system can be updated.
The letter does not explicitly accuse the students of violating the state’s residency laws — and indeed it would be very difficult for Summers to defend such a claim. The Supreme Court ruled over 30 years ago that students cannot be held to a different residency standard than other people within the state. Nevertheless, the letter succeeded in intimidating many of its targets.
ThinkProgress spoke with a few of the letter recipients. Casey O’Malley, a senior at University of Maine Farmington, said her family has been worried about potential legal consequences because of this letter. She hasn’t decided whether to cancel her registration or not, but her family has been “pretty insistent” that she do so in order to be on the safe side. Another recipient, who wished to remain anonymous, said that students she knew were “beyond scared and freaked out.” One was “so shaken up” because she was scared the letter meant she was going to get sued.
Maine Secretary of State spokeswoman Caitlin Chamberlain told ThinkProgress that intimidating student voters “wasn’t our aim.” The office “just wanted to inform students who may not have been aware of those laws,” Chamberlain said. Though she said the office accepted the Supreme Court ruling permitting student voters, she also claimed that “to vote in Maine, you must declare yourself a resident.” This was reflected in the letter, leading many students to mistakenly believe that they were illegally registered in Maine.
For the Maine secretary of state to target hundreds of college students with scare tactics on the behest of the Maine Republican Party chairman is one of the worst forms of voter intimidation. Most citizens would be understandably frightened by such a letter, especially college students who were first-time voters. Though these Maine students were performing their civic duty, the same cannot be said for Summers and Webster.
There’s a word for top elections officials who decide not to help students to vote but rather harass them into un-registering: reprehensible.