Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster is “on a mission to make Maine a better place.” The trouble is, the “better place” he envisions lies on the other side of what may be an insurmountable controversy.
Since famously brandishing a list of 206 alleged voter frauds—all college students—a few weeks ago, Webster has been branded the leader of a witch hunt. The chairman maintains that Maine law is very clear that residency must be established before voting. This is true, but Webster’s opponents on this issue are quick to point out that doing so is almost trivially easy, and certainly not beyond students’ ability. Webster insists on implementing several harsher residency requirements, such as paying income taxes.
He intends to prevent students attending schools away from their hometowns from voting in communities where their interests may run counter to the residents’. At the center of this issue is Maine’s Election Day registration law, which was repealed in June but may be on its way back from the grave. Webster contends that students—especially out-of-state students—who register and vote on their Maine campuses on a day-of basis may be committing fraud. Few such students think to notify their original place of registration of their new voting locale, and many are registered in two places at once. However, dual registration alone is not voter fraud, and Webster’s critics claim that Maine has virtually no issues with voter fraud, that voting machines are designed to protect against this issue, and that voter registries are routinely updated to account for changes of address.
To further frustrate Webster’s efforts, legal precedent does not seem to favor his position. The Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that a poll worker’s questions to would-be voter students, deemed to determine their residency status, were unconstitutional, and approved dormitory addresses for voter registration use.
Same-day registration, however, often denies the district prior notice required to prevent fraud. Webster has seized on this issue, saying “When you have 500 students registering on the day of an election, there is no way to make sure that these students aren’t registered and voting somewhere else.” And whether or not those students actually are, Webster has succeeded in making this a hot-button political issue.
College students, who typically vote liberal, are being portrayed as invaders that compromise small town working class families’ local interests with their fraudulent votes, only to relocate after their undergrad years. While some bemoan the political twist on the issue of student voting rights, for Webster students are only a small part of a large problem that has existed for years.
Debate over the late same-day registration law fell along party lines, with Republicans citing underhanded Democratic tactics, including the busing of liberal voters to other districts, to sway elections. According to Webster, who claims to have been fighting this trend for 30 years, students are just a new variation on this theme.
During the years the same-day registration law was in effect, Maine became the state with the third-highest voter turnout. Yet, as Webster points out, despite evidence that such statutes help overall electoral participation, their rarity (42 states have stayed away from such laws) speaks to the potential for fraud they create.
Still, students are feeling alienated and Webster’s list of students, which was sent to the Maine Attorney General and Secretary of State for review, was hardly a voter fraud revelation: nobody on the list has ever voted twice in the same election. Webster pointed out that he was only exposing possible fraud, and the investigation he instigated did in fact turn up some registration snafus, though few of these are likely to receive any attention.
Opponents remain confident that Webster does not have a legal leg to stand on in his crusade against student voter “fraud,” but the termination of same-day registration and the resultant decrease in student registration may render that battle all but moot. Coming months will tell whether Charlie Webster’s efforts will yield long-term fruit, but until then, he certainly is not shying away from controversy.
John Loughney is a first-year student at William & Mary Law School.