LEWISTON — Mayoral candidate Charles Soule said he was trying to make a point about local elections when he challenged a group of Bates College students at the polls Tuesday.
“I explained the facts, about how would they feel if I went to their family’s home district and started voting in their election without changing their driver’s licenses or other information,” Soule said Wednesday.
But that’s not how Bates students Kristen Kelliher, Monata Song and Sophie Samdperil took it.
To them, it was flat-out harassment, bordering on voter intimidation.
“He made a clear issue about my race,” said Song, a Bates junior. “I think that’s most appalling, that he questioned my ability to vote solely on the racial issue, on my appearance.”
It’s an extreme example of a perennial debate, City Clerk Kathy Montejo said. Should college students, new to the area and part-time residents, be allowed to vote in local elections?
“This is not new, and it comes up every election when Bates students come to vote,” Montejo said. “Folks question and say it’s not fair because they are not city taxpayers. It’s the same issue for the town of Brunswick and Bowdoin College and the city of Waterville and Colby College. It’s not unique to Lewiston. It’s really the same in any town in the state of Maine that has a residential-based college.”
The Bates campus is split evenly between Wards 1 and 3. Both wards have their polling place at the Lewiston Memorial Armory, 65 Central Ave.
Montejo said the students can vote, based on state rules.
“Under the state of Maine Constitution, college students are allowed to register and to vote in the community where their college is located,” Montejo said. “Beyond that, the city is following the state election laws and procedures to the best of our understanding.”
Soule is a local eccentric who has run unsuccessfully for multiple city seats over the past 20 years. He picked up 72 votes Tuesday, less than 1 percent of the total cast in the mayoral race and dead last in a field of five candidates.
Soule said it bothers him that Bates students vote, and he spoke up while standing outside the Lewiston Armory.
“All they need is to show a school badge,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right that they don’t have to change driver’s licenses or nothing.”
Soule said his comments were not racist, but he assumed one of the students didn’t speak English — and he said so.
“She was Chinese and I said, ‘You probably don’t speak English,’ and they got all fried,” he said.
Song said she didn’t understand Soule’s comment at first. He muttered it as they walked by, she said.
“We walked away and Sophie took me aside and said, ‘Did you hear what that man said?'” Song said. “We were pretty sure he said we shouldn’t vote because we didn’t speak English.”
They went back and asked him to clarify.
“I was in disbelief, and his response was that ‘she didn’t speak English and shouldn’t vote,'” Samdperil said. “Then he said, ‘Please get away from me. Have a nice day, have a nice day, have a nice day.'”
Song said Soule appeared angry.
“I think, the way he said it, it was out of his fear of not winning and his anger at Bates students being there,” Song said. “It was clearly racist and meant to question why we were even there.”
Samdperil said Soule retreated to the men’s room — and they followed him in. He wrote about the incident on his Web blog, saying the Bates students were harassing him while he was using the facilities.
Samdperil said Soule was never exposed and was not using the restroom facilities but was attempting to escape.
Montejo said there were no complaints about harassment or voter intimidation Tuesday, although Soule had reported that three female Bates students had followed him into the men’s restroom.
Song and Samdperil said they were not aware that they could make a report about the incident to election officials.
They defended their right to vote.
“I have lived here for four years,” said Kelliher, a Bates senior. “I have lived here all summer and was engaged in the community. I participated in Grow L+A, I worked at United Ambulance. I have the right to vote because I am a U.S. citizen, but I am part of the community, too.”
Samdperil agreed. She said she’s worked with Tree Street Youth and the YWCA.
“Generally, the Bates people who do vote, they are interested in being part of the community,” she said. “The people who don’t want to connect, they don’t vote. I do feel connected to the community and I feel my personal values are just as important.”