FARMINGTON — The chairman of the Maine Republican Party said Friday that College Republicans at the University of Maine at Farmington worked to prevent university vans from being used to take student voters to the polls on Election Day 2010.
Charlie Webster, who has been campaigning against a group seeking to overturn a recently passed law that ended same-day voter registration in Maine, said in a phone interview that UMF's College Republicans reserved university vans to use on Election Day last November, but then parked the vans in a lot so they couldn't be used to take students to the polls.
Webster on Tuesday gave the Secretary of State’s Office a list of 206 names of out-of-state University of Maine System students who are registered to vote in Maine. Those students will be investigated for possible voter fraud.
The request for an investigation is part of Webster’s campaign against an effort to repeal a new law eliminating same-day voter registration.
Webster said Friday he was opposed to using the UMF vans for get-out-the-vote efforts because it constituted using a taxpayer resource for a political purpose.
"I believe it's totally inappropriate to use any taxpayer money for politics," Webster said. To combat that in 2010, Franklin County Republicans had a plan.
"Guess what happened in 2010?" Webster said. "The buses didn't run on Election Day because we had the College Republicans reserve them early and on Election Day we took them over and parked them in the Walmart parking lot."
Webster said using the vans to transport voters to the polls should be illegal. He believes that at a minimum, the practice its unethical.
"So we parked them for the day in the parking lot and we continued to drive people to the polls in our private-citizen cars and vans, but we didn't use taxpayer resources," Webster said. "We just reserved them early enough, before they got to them."
University officials confirmed that the College Republicans at UMF reserved three of the college's five vans available for use by student organizations. But there were no complaints that students couldn't get to the polls, the officials said.
Anne Geller, chairwoman of the Franklin County Democrats, said Friday that the tactic of trying to prevent students from voting by removing transportation options seemed to run counter to every democratic principle.
"As Democrats, we believe in giving people who are qualified to vote the opportunity to vote and in making it as accessible as possible," Geller said. "This is the United States of America and the more people who vote, the better."
If it's true that College Republicans took the vans out of service just to prevent them from being used to take voters to the polls, then the university's resources were being misused, Geller said.
"Because those vans were checked out for the use and the participation of the College Republican group, and if the College Republican group is trying to prevent students from voting, that's a very serious matter," she said.
"To me, it's not in the spirit of what the political clubs at a college should be about," she said. "They should be about educating students about the political process, and the political process shouldn't include tyring to figure out ways of trying to keep people from going to the polls. This is teaching students how to make something not happen. How can that be right, that a student is taught to make it harder for people to vote. How can that be right?"
Geller rebuked Webster's claim that taxpayer resources were being used for a political purpose when the vans were being used to transport college voters to the polling place.
She said if that were the case, all political activity at the college would have to be banned. For now, candidates, including Republican candidates, are allowed to set up tables and hand out campaign material at the student center on the UMF campus.
Republican candidates did that in 2010, and Republicans actually won the state legislative seats they were running for in Farmington, she said.
Geller also said that the university system is only partially funded by tax dollars and that students paying tuition for the education and services they receive were the ones who largely fund the system.
Karen Schuler, a longtime Franklin County Democrat, called the move to reserve the buses so somebody else couldn't use them "childish."
So far, she said, Webster has yet to prove any voter fraud has been committed by college students in Maine. Schuler said the only two cases of voter fraud that have been prosecuted in Maine in recent years involved Republican voters.
Schuler drove a van for voters in Farmington in 2006. She said that van was rented from a local business and paid for by the Franklin County Democrats.
"This all started out with him claiming we were busing in all of these people," Schuler said. "The buses ended up being one van in 2006 and in 2010, no vans, because they reserved them all and hid them so the Democrats couldn't use them."
She noted that Webster hadn't made an issue of the many local nursing homes or other long-term care facilities for elderly people that bus voters to the polls on Election Day.
She said in recent decades only one Democrat, Janet Mills, had been elected to the Legislature in Farmington.
"Other than that, they've been quite successful at holding onto local seats, so we must not be doing a very good job of flooding the polls," Schuler said.
She said if the investigation by the Maine Secretary of State and Attorney General's offices doesn't produce any cases of college voter fraud, she hopes Webster will apologize.
Webster said Friday he was still convinced the system, especially with same-day voter registration, was being abused by college students. He said it was impossible for a polling clerk on Election Day to check quickly on whether a newly registered voter had already voted somewhere else.
Webster said Janet Mills' election win in 2006 was a classic example of poll-flooding. Republicans were leading in the polls until Election Day, when Mills' supporters, many college students from UMF — not Franklin County residents — flooded the polls, pushing Mills to victory.
"In most cases, the only time, if ever, it really matters is when you have very close elections for the state Legislature, usually for the House, and that's when, if you allow dozens, if not hundreds, of people to come in who are not citizens of the community and they can influence who is elected to that district even though they don't happen to share the views of the people in that area," Webster said.