A congressional bill that refers to a 2016 effort to keep Bates College students away from the polls would make it a federal crime to willfully spread false information to try to keep people from voting.
The penalty included in the bill submitted by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., for engaging in deceptive acts includes a fine of up to $100,000 and as many as five years in prison.
The proposal, which is being introduced by Democrats in both the House and Senate, calls “casting a ballot for one’s preferred candidate” a fundamental right.
But, it said, a new tactic aimed at suppressing the vote threatens the integrity of elections, including “the dissemination of false or misleading information” meant to “prevent voters from casting their ballots,” undermine the electoral process or intimidate the electorate.
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who oversees elections, said Thursday that the bill sounds great in concept
“But isn’t there this thing called the 1st Amendment?” Dunlap said. “Free speech includes shades of truth, spin and perspective. Your sunny day is the farmer’s drought; your needed rain is someone else’s flash flood.”
Among the items that sponsors worry about are intentional efforts to spread false information about polling places, the time of elections and the necessity of various forms of identification.
It cites a handful of incidents across the country where people made efforts to stifle voting.
Among those mentioned in the legislation is one that points to reports during the 2016 presidential election “of students receiving fliers stating that in order to vote in a local precinct, they had to pay to change their driver’s license and re-register vehicles in the city in which the precinct was located.”
That is what happened at Bates College on the Saturday before Election Day in 2016.
Somebody distributed anonymous orange fliers at a number of dorms and at the school’s dining hall claiming to be a “Legal Advisory” for Bates students.
The fliers told students, falsely, that “to register and vote in Lewiston, you must pay to change your driver’s license to Lewiston, Maine, within 30 days” and “pay to re-register any vehicle you have in Lewiston” and pointed out that registering a vehicle requires passing an inspection and usually costs hundreds of dollars.
“That was a bad one,” Dunlap said.
He said an earlier incident at the University of Maine was even more brutal, telling students that if they registered to vote, and changed their residency in the process, they might be jeopardizing their financial aid packages.
McCaskill said such incidents shouldn’t go unpunished.
“At a time when voting rights are being attacked and chipped away — from state legislatures to the Supreme Court — we’ve got to redouble our efforts” to protect everyone’s right to vote, she said.
“Misinformation campaigns intended only to suppress the vote and disenfranchise” voters, McCaskill said, “are crimes that run counter to our democratic values, and the punishment for those actions should fit the crime.”
McCaskill’s Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act is co-sponsored by Democratic senators Ben Cardin of Maryland, Doug Jones of Alabama and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Two House members plan to submit a matching bill.
“All Americans deserve the right to choose a candidate based on relevant issues and the quality of the candidates, not based on underhanded efforts to deliberately undermine the integrity of our electoral process,” Cardin said in a prepared statement.
“Reliably, these tactics seem to target minority neighborhoods and are blatant attempts to reduce turnout,” he said. “Such tactics undermine and corrode our very democracy and threaten the very integrity of our electoral system.”
Jones said in prepared comments that he is proud to back “this long-overdue legislation to stop bad actors who work to undermine our democratic process and prevent voters from exercising their rights as Americans.”
Several congressional Democrats plan to introduce legislation that would make it a federal crime to knowingly and intentionally publish false information about elections.
At this point, there are no co-sponsors among Maine’s legislative delegation.
A flier distributed anonymously at Bates College shortly before the 2016 presidential election that presented false information to students in a bid to keep them from heading to the polls. (File photo from 2016)
Section of the proposed Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2018 that mentions an anonymous 2016 effort to suppress student voting at Bates College.