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Gov. LePage accused of voter intimidation after he says college students must establish residency if they choose to vote in Maine

A flier found on the Bates College campus (Courtesy of Sarah Frankie Sigman)

The governor of Maine told college students Monday to establish residency in Maine if they choose to vote there, and warned that state officials would pursue every legal means to verify that students who voted were complying with state law.

That prompted critics to say he was illegally intimidating voters, and to call on federal officials to investigate.

Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican known for controversial comments who supports GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, made his statement Monday in response to questions about fliers found on the Bates College campus in Lewiston over the weekend, which Maine’s secretary of state said “appear to be targeting college students in order to discourage them from registering to vote.”

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The posters warn of “hundreds of dollars” in likely taxes and fees for students who register to vote, which Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, said is untrue because registration does not immediately trigger things such as excise taxes on a car.

The debate escalated tensions that were high the day before the election, in a state where people can register to vote at the last minute.

“Democrats for decades have encouraged college students from out of state to vote in Maine, even though there is no way to determine whether these college students also voted in their home states,” LePage said in a statement.

“Casting ballots in two different states is voter fraud, which is why Maine law requires anyone voting here to establish residency here. We welcome college students establishing residency in our great state, as long as they follow all laws that regulate voting, motor vehicles and taxes. We cannot tolerate voter fraud in our state.”

LePage continued, “After the election, we will do everything we can that is allowed under state and federal law to verify college students who voted here are following Maine law, which is clearly displayed on the Secretary of State’s website.”

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That prompted a call from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.

“The governor’s statement seems designed to make college students afraid to vote,” Zachary Heiden, legal director at the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement. “Voter intimidation and harassment is illegal, and we call on the Department of Justice to investigate the intent of the governor’s comments.

“College students who live in Maine have the right to vote in Maine, and they are not subject to different laws than anyone else. Many of these young people are voting for the first time in a presidential election. The governor should be encouraging that civic participation, not doing everything in his power to undermine it.”

A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) said taking down statues of the Confederacy would be “just like” removing monuments in memory of victims of the 9/11 attacks. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/The Washington Post)

A Bates College student, Sarah Frankie Sigman, said she and some friends noticed a young man with a bunch of fliers in the dining hall over the weekend. When she read the fliers, her immediate reaction was “rage,” she said Monday evening, calling from a rally at which President Obama was speaking. “This is obviously meant to scare Bates students from voting, which is not right.”

She and her friends took down more than 30 of them, she said, from the dining hall and the walls of a dorm. Sigman is from a very politically engaged family, she said, and “the need to vote has been instilled  in me since birth.” At 19, the politics and women and gender studies major from New York will vote in her first presidential election Tuesday, and said she was upset that the fliers had caused a lot of confusion on campus.

“The false information contained in these fliers is a deliberate attempt to suppress the millennial vote,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in a statement. “There is nothing in Maine law that states that college students must change their driver’s licenses in order to vote.

“In fact, the Secretary of State’s office has made explicitly clear that a dorm can be a student’s legal voting residence, and that paying out-of-state tuition does not preclude a student from voting. Maine also has same-day voter registration, so students who are not registered to vote in Maine can still register on Election Day. We urge all Bates students to spread the word to their fellow classmates about their voting rights here in Maine.”

Dunlap said in a statement Monday afternoon that “It says a great deal that these fliers have been distributed with no attribution as to who paid for them or who is responsible for their content — which is illegal. Attempting to prevent American citizens from participating in their democratic process of self-governance through intimidation and fear is shameful, and it should be treasonable.”

Dunlap said LePage’s message underscores that in the fliers, and ignores the fact that the public policies around driver’s licenses, vehicle registrations and taxes are not related to the right to vote.

“Sadly, his statements only inflame an atmosphere of doubt and fear among the voters. I think it speaks loudly to how powerful the individual right to vote is when there are those who would keep citizens from wielding it.”

Lewiston is in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, which has a tight race between an incumbent Republican and the Democrat he narrowly defeated in the 2014 election. Lewiston is very much a battleground, said Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party. It has more registered Democrats than Republicans but is an area where the high proportion of Catholic and antiabortion Democrats has eroded traditional support for the party, he said.

Savage said he wanted to make clear that the GOP had nothing to do with the fliers found at Bates.

Anything the party puts out it stands behind, he said. “We have worked hard to get our votes on campuses across the state to get out and vote, worked incredibly hard to grow our support on campuses. This hurts us.”

LePage referred students to the secretary of state’s website, and wrote in his statement,

Consequences of Declaring Your Voting Residence (by Registering to Vote) in Maine
• You should be aware that if you register to vote in Maine, you will be deemed to have declared residency in Maine, which may have consequences for compliance with other Maine laws, including the motor vehicle laws and tax laws.
• If you drive a car in Maine, you are required to obtain a Maine driver’s license within thirty days of establishing residency here. Driving without a Maine license more than ninety days after you have established residency in the state is a crime under Maine law.
• If you are a resident of Maine and own a vehicle here, state law also requires you to register that vehicle in Maine within thirty days of establishing residency. By declaring Maine as your voting residence, you may be treated as a resident of Maine for income tax purposes and be subject to Maine income tax.

A spokesman for the governor, Peter Steele, added in an email that the language comes directly from the secretary of state’s website. “No one is saying students have to register their car or get Maine licenses to vote. But the law is very clear. If students vote, then they have established residency in Maine and will be subject to all laws that regulate voting, motor vehicles and taxes.”

U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the Republican incumbent who is running for re-election, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Clayton Spencer, the president of Bates, said in a statement that “this is clearly a deliberate attempt at voter suppression. We are proud of our students’ interest and participation in the electoral process, and I am deeply disturbed that anyone would seek to deter their exercise of the most basic form of citizenship. We at Bates College are doing everything possible to ensure that our students have clear information about how to register and vote.”

She said by phone Monday afternoon that she has heard a lot from students and faculty who were very concerned about the fliers. “The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights in a democratic society. It’s also a civic duty.” In most cases at Bates, it will be their first opportunity to vote in a presidential election, she noted.

According to a spokesman, about 90 percent of the school’s 1,750 students are from out of state.

There are about 26,400 registered voters in Lewiston, according to the city clerk’s office there.

The issue of college students voting has been an issue in Maine before, said John Baughman, an associate professor of politics at Bates.

In 2011, the state Republican chairman asked the secretary of state to investigate more than 200 college students whom he said had voted illegally, but  after an investigation by the secretary of state at the time, who was Republican, no evidence of voter fraud was found.

At Bates, the student population is very liberal, much more so than the community that surrounds the campus, said Baughman, (who said he studies political science in a non-partisan manner but noted in the interest of full disclosure that his wife is communications director for the Democratic caucus in the Maine state house.) That partisan imbalance has been a point of controversy, with people asking whether students who will live in the state for just a few years should have the right to vote locally.

“Of course, under Maine law they do,” he said.

Savage said the Maine GOP chairman is proposing that the two parties embark on an effort, after this election is over, to start educating students about voting on campus, “to make sure everybody knows how to obey the law, follow the law, so this type of intimidation and scare tactics won’t work.”