GOP chairman says if students want to vote, they should pay taxes

AUGUSTA, Maine — Charlie Webster sounds a lot like LeRoy Symm.

Symm, the registrar of voters in Waller County, Texas, had a special questionnaire he used for college students. It included questions such as: Do you own property in the county? Where did you attend church? What are your job plans?

If Symm and his deputies knew a voter by name and face, they were simply registered. College students had to pass Symm’s test. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 said this violated the Constitution, thereby establishing the practice of allowing college students to list their dormitory as their residence for the purposes of voting.

Three decades later, the ruling has not deterred Webster, the Maine Republican Party chairman, who weeks ago brandished a list of more than 200 college students he said likely engaged in voter fraud.

“I get tired of talking about this because the law is clear,” Webster said this week. “If I want to vote, I need to establish residency. I need to register my car and pay taxes in that community. You can’t just become a student and vote wherever you want.”

The law is fairly clear, but that’s not what it says.

According to Maine’s Secretary of State’s Office, three things are required of registered voters: They must be a U.S. citizen, they must have established and maintained a residence in the municipality where the person intends to register to vote, and they must be at least 17 to register or 18 to vote.

Citizenship and age are easily addressed. Residence is trickier.

Students have the right to register in the municipality where they attend school as long as they have established residency. They are then subject to the same residency requirements but cannot be asked to meet additional requirements.

Determining established residency is left to municipal clerks and they can consider the following factors in determining established residency: a direct statement or oath, a motor vehicle registration, an income tax return, a piece of mail listing a current address or any other objective facts.

Despite Webster’s beliefs, though, none of these elements are required.

Furthermore, in 2008 then-Attorney General Steven Rowe issued an opinion about this matter in connection with a Republican-backed bill that sought to prohibit college students living on campus from registering to vote in that community.

That bill ultimately failed, but Rowe’s opinion was that the responsibility of determining a voter’s residence lies with municipal voting officials. He also said any state law prohibiting students living in dormitories to assert that it is their residence would be deemed unconstitutional, because of the Symm case.

Consider the case of Christopher Knoblock. He is among the 206 out-of-state students on the list submitted in July by Webster to the secretary of state for investigation of voter fraud. That list of names was obtained by the Bangor Daily News from the Secretary of State’s Office through a Freedom of Information request.

Knoblock, a native of Belmont, Mass., first registered to vote in his hometown and state in 2007 after he turned 18. He then voted in Massachusetts in the February 2008 presidential primary.

In the fall of 2008, Knoblock attended the University of Maine and lived on campus. In November of that year, he wanted to vote in the general presidential election. So he registered on campus in Orono.

It never occurred to him to unregister in his hometown, and there is no legal obligation to do so. Updating of voter rolls by towns and the state is meant to capture people who have moved from one community to another and automatically delete those who have registered in a new community.

The next summer, Knoblock was still a student at UMaine and voted in the state’s same-sex marriage referendum.

He moved off campus shortly after that. When the next election came up, in November 2010, Knoblock voted back home in Massachusetts. He never unregistered in Orono.

“I’m surprised to be on this list and I’m surprised that it’s an issue that I voted in Maine at all,” he said. “We were encouraged to vote when we were on campus, and we were told that voting on campus was legal. I think this unfairly targets out-of-state students, as it’s much harder for those of us who are out of state to vote via absentee.”

Orono Town Clerk Wanda Thomas confirmed that Knoblock voted in Maine in 2008 and 2009 but not in 2010. A clerk in Belmont, Mass., confirmed that Knoblock voted there last fall.

While voting officials don’t like the fact that someone can be registered in two different places at the same time, it does not constitute fraud.

“It’s actually fairly common and not just with college students,” said Ellen O’Brien Cushman, town clerk in Knoblock’s hometown of Belmont, Mass. “Municipalities do their very best to verify residency, but it’s not necessarily the responsibility of a voter to unregister.”

Many of the 206 names on Webster’s list, however, probably never should have been on the list in the first place. Notes attached to the list of names containing comments from Webster indicate that as many as half of them never registered in their home states.

Presumably, those students registered for the first time in Maine, voted in the November 2010 election and therefore committed no fraud.

That was the case for Justin Lynch, a third-year UMaine student from Ballston Spa, N.Y. Lynch said he, too, was surprised to be on the list because he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong. He called the claims by Webster, “a shocking act of government intimidating young people.”

“I have always been proud of the way Maine’s day of registration system was set up,” he said. “It encourages younger people to vote. It encourages everyone to vote for that matter because it takes away the complicated registration system other states have.”

If someone never registered in their home state, they could not have voted there. So why did Webster include names of students who clearly did not commit fraud?

Asked that question, the GOP chairman elicited a laugh and said he was frustrated trying to explain the situation.

“I have no idea whether they obeyed the law,” Webster said. “So I can’t accuse them.”

Only he did accuse them. He explicitly said his cursory research was evidence of “deliberate voter fraud.”

Webster’s claims drew immediate criticism from Democrats in July.

Still, Secretary of State Charlie Summers — former vice chairman of the Maine GOP under Webster — said he would investigate based on the seriousness of the allegations.

Less than a week later, though, Summers informed the public that he would roll Webster’s allegations into a broader probe. Some felt that was an effort to downplay Webster’s claims.

“He doesn’t want students to vote in Maine. Everything else he’s said has been a smokescreen,” said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. “The key issue is people voting in more than one place and that hasn’t happened.”

Although the Secretary of State’s Office investigation is not complete, there is no evidence to suggest that anyone on the list acted deliberately to commit fraud, as Webster suggested. And fraud exists when a voter has voted twice in the same election, something that has not been proven.

Many Democrats believe Webster and the Maine Republican Party are trying to suppress the voting rights of college students, a group that more often than not votes Democratic. They also have asserted that Webster’s witch hunt and Summers’ investigation were meant to inject fear into the minds of voters as they prepare to consider a people’s veto effort of a recently passed law that repealed same-day registration.

But Webster believes he has addressed a problem that has gone unchecked for 40 years under the Democrats’ control. Maine is such a small state, he said, that local races can be won in some cases by only a handful of votes.

“We’ll let this play out,” he said. “I’m willing to take the criticism I’m getting. What I find bizarre is that anyone would think I would bring up something that wasn’t a problem.”

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Susan Gadberry's picture

Lots of "special classes"

Military folk, college kids, homeless people, snowbirds...all of these groups may be on the move in terms of where they live at any given time yet all, if age 18 or older and not felons, have the right to vote. Registering an automobile and paying property taxes in a community are not prerequisites to voting there. (Check out the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, the 1970s Voting Rights Act and case law on the subject.)

Also, people who work and live in Washington, D.C., for a member of Congress are still allowed to vote in their "home" state, even though some of these people make lifelong careers in DC and own homes there.

Federal law has attempted to protect the voting rights of all these "special classes," something I am thankful for.

Jim Cyr's picture

Establishing residence

Is it not mandatory to re-register your vehicle and drivers license within 30 days if you are to move here from another state? Are college students a "special class"?

Susan Gadberry's picture

Good job, Eric Russell

Thank you for writing an article that clearly explains just how wrong-headed Charlie Webster and his daft accusations of student voter fraud are. I couldn't be more disgusted with Webster and his shenanigans, including his direction to UMF College Republicans to take university vans out of service so people couldn't be driven to the polls.

Mr. Webster should stick to his oil business but take care to avoid inhaling any more fumes.

RONALD RIML's picture

This is much more about Charlie Webster

Than any 'alleged' fraudulent voting.

So far as anyone knows - Charlie hasn't provided any facts which substantiate any 'fraud' has actually occurred; merely that 'students from away' possibly could vote in two separate jurisdictions.

Does Charlie have a bias in his mind that this will more than likely occur? I recall - from my law enforcement days - a certain retail security guard who would over-zealously shadow minority youth while the 'preppies' stole his store blind.

Not having actually provided any proof that the fraud of dual voting is actually occurring, does Charlie really think we are that witless, or is he the 'preppy' stealing the Store blind as he points out other suspects??

I've got my suspicions......



Just thinking about how excited my own kids were to go off to college and then to think about them being greeted by a slap in the face like this by someone who doesn't want them to use their legal right to vote is just plain disgusting. I hope they pay him back by voting in droves. I, for one, want to let out of state college students know that not all of us are hostile and that some of us are really happy to welcome them to Maine.

Joe Morin's picture

Quite the contrary

...then to think about them being greeted by a slap in the face like this by someone who doesn't want them to use their legal right to vote... That's the point, he wants them to use their LEGAL right to vote. What's the best way? How do you ensure? I don't know Claire... I am happy to welcome students to Maine but people are individuals and they can vote once. I travel all over but I claim my residence here in Maine where I pay taxes & vote. I don't try to vote elsewhere, seems cut and dry.


next - a poll tax?


and then if someone from the wrong side of the tracks or the wrong skin color shows up, an impossible to pass reading comprehension test. No, I'm not implying Charlie is racist, he may be, but that is immaterial to this story. He is doing his best to suppress the vote west of center.

As for renewed claims of voter fraud. - it would be out of character for any conservative to ever admit error. In their own eyes, they are the messengers from God.

Joe Morin's picture

Thats a pretty broad stroke Tony

"As for renewed claims of voter fraud. - it would be out of character for any conservative to ever admit error. In their own eyes, they are the messengers from God." Over 50% of the country is conservative...but what does that really mean? Furthermore, what do you really mean? On social issues i'm pretty liberal, on matters of finance and running this country in a sustainable way I am conservative. I identify my self as Libertarian because that is as close as I've found. You would consider me a conservative because I'm looking through your eyes right now, yah a little creepy.I believe in some higher power not sure what it is or if it's even sentient. I'm not a huge believer in religion but find a lot of the people I know that do attend church hold themselves to a higher moral standard... The one true belief I have is in man kinds ignorance & arrogance. Both of which are wonderfully displayed in a broadstroke of the brush that you used to characterize over a 100 million people. You must be real good

Licia Kuenning's picture

I think that's the reason

I've kept asking why this is a partisan issue, but I think the idea attributed to Democrats here is probably the reason: college students are "a group that more often than not votes Democratic." So some Republicans would rather fewer of them voted. I have generally been in sympathy with Republicans in recent years, but I don't join them in this. Students should vote where they live, and if they spend more time in the location of their school than in the state they came from, and are more aware of issues here, they should vote where they go to school. Republicans should put their efforts into persuading students of their policy positions, not into keeping them away from the polls. As for the new law about advance registration, if its purpose is to give town clerks time to screen college students, I don't think the clerks will do that. In my experience town voter lists are hopelessly out of date, and if you gave the clerks a year to update them, they would still be full of names of people who moved away long ago.

Doreen Sheive's picture


Charlie Webster is bizarre. He just likes to get his name in the paper. But, sometimes I do wonder if he should leave the United States of America and start his own country where he could be dictator and chief.

Terry Donald's picture

Webster still there?

That Charlie Webster has not yet been removed as the Chair of the state GOP says an awful lot about the republican party here.
He is again showing his total ignorance of the law, and his complete lack of common sense!
Students pay taxes, plenty of them, directly and indirectly. But that's beside the point since payment of taxes has nothing to do with voter eligibility.
I would say that Charlie should enroll in a civics class or two and learn a little about election law before he opens his mouth about this topic again.
Mr Webster should first apologize, then bend over and kiss the rear ends of each and every student in the state. Their tuition and spending creates and supports thousands of jobs each year here. And I would venture to say that any single out of state college student has much more positive economic impact in one than Mr Webster could every hope to have.

Mark Wrenn's picture


And how many of these evil out of state students are indirectly providing his bread and butter by living in rental housing in Farmington? Landlords are going to need to repair their properties at some point.


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