In 1973, Maine was the first state in the U.S. to adopt same day voter registration (SDR). Since SDR was implemented, Maine has consistently ranked among the states with the highest voter turnout.
In an astounding reversal of nearly forty years of leadership in ensuring voters’ access to the ballot booths, officials in the Pine Tree state have begun implementing policies designed to keep them away.
Last June, that progress was halted with the passage of legislation repealing the practice. Justification for this measure was premised, in part, on unsubstantiated allegations of “voter fraud”.
The legislation follows a recent national trend whereby states are passing laws – ostensibly protective against “voter fraud” - which will have the net effect of disenfranchising huge swaths of the voting populace. The Brennan Center issued a report earlier this month estimating that nationally the new laws could affect the ability of more than 5 million eligible voters to cast their ballots.
In response to criticisms that the “voter fraud” rationale was at best misguided and at worst manufactured, Charlie Webster, the Chair of Maine’s Republican party, held a press conference wherein he announced that he would be providing Secretary of State Charlie Summers with a list of 206 University of Maine students, originally from out of state, who he “believed had committed voter fraud” by registering and voting in Maine.
Allegations of criminal activity are serious business, and a responsible public official would tread lightly: taking into consideration the source, evaluating the rational basis for the source’s “beliefs” and intruding into the lives of those presumed innocent only when the path was clear. Secretary Summers, however, opted to cut right to the chase with an “investigate first, ask questions later” approach. Why bother with due diligence when you’re presented with a list?
Unsurprisingly, he came up empty. Not a single student on Charlie Webster’s list was found to have registered or voted inappropriately. So what, one might ask, did Charlie Summers do? Did he contact Charlie Webster, admonishing him that under Maine law accusing someone of criminal activity publicly, falsely and recklessly could subject him to a civil defamation claim? Did he hold a press conference exonerating the students and apologizing for what amounted to a witch hunt? Did he rethink his untenable position that SDR increases voter fraud? Unfortunately, he did none of this.
Instead he sent a letter to each of the students informing them that his investigation was complete. Nowhere did he mention that the students were vindicated, and his letter quite clearly implied that they were not. More specifically, he informed them that registering to vote in Maine, as prior residents of another state, put them in violation of Maine’s motor vehicle law. Ever thoughtful, Secretary Summers enclosed a form – specially crafted by his office – which would allow the students to cancel their Maine voter registration.
In essence, the students were offered a choice – register your cars and get Maine driver’s licenses, or deregister as voters. To make the decision easier, he enclosed the newly designed “deregistration” form. No driver’s license application or vehicle registration form was included as an alternative. A deadline of October 20th was specified by which each student was to make his or her choice. Impliedly, those who took no action, though legally registered voters, would be singled out for prosecution under the motor vehicle law.
Of course this would not be the first time in our nation’s history that a public official used the pretext of laws on the books to intimidate voters. During the civil right era, southern police officers targeted black voters who were leaving voter registration drives, pulling them over for minor, though technically valid, traffic infractions. The Fifth Circuit court that reviewed these cases was not fooled.
In a case entitled U.S. v. McLeod, it noted, “It is common knowledge that the police often overlook violations of relatively trivial traffic laws. Rarely if ever do police mount massive law enforcement drives to eradicate the sinful practice of driving with burned out license-plate lights. When they do so on the evening of a voter registration meeting and, fortuitously of course, catch twenty-nine Negroes on their way home from that meeting and no one else, the inference of justifiable enforcement … loses much of its force.”
This decision is in line with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 42 U.S.C. § 1973i(b), Section 11(b) of which provides:
“No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote...”
One hopes that Mr. Summers was simply overzealous and will retract his letter and cease targeting these students. One likewise hopes that Maine’s upcoming “People’s Veto” – a referendum on November 8th to determine whether SDR will be reinstated – will be successful.