AUGUSTA — In the latest twist in the debate over same-day voter registration, the chairman of the Maine Republican Party on Friday questioned why 19 individuals staying in a South Portland hotel were allowed to register to vote on Election Day in 2004.
As it turns it out, the individuals were American college students, who appear to have registered and voted legally.
Questioned by the Sun Journal, Jason Bartlett, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express on Sable Oaks Drive, said the students had been "permanent guests" at the hotel because their medical school on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean had been destroyed by Hurricane Ivan.
The 19 students, who came from states across the country, were among 383 students enrolled at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. All were displaced by the storm. According to Bartlett, the students were sent to Maine to continue their studies while their school was repaired.
St. Joseph's College in Standish assisted in the relocation program, according to a college spokesperson.
The relocation was the subject of a Press Herald story published in September 2004.
Maine Republican Party Charlie Webster did not identify the individuals as students in his news release. He made no reference to the circumstances that led to their relocation to Maine.
"Mainers should be very concerned that 19 individuals, who all listed the same hotel address, were able to register to vote and cast a ballot, all on a busy Election Day," Webster said in the release issued Friday morning.
Asked Friday if he called the hotel to inquire about the individuals, Webster said he didn't. He added that their circumstances were irrelevant to his argument that town clerks need more time to verify whether the individuals were actual residents or had cast ballots elsewhere during the same election.
"We don’t know that unless somebody has a chance to inspect their name," Webster said. "That’s the whole issue here."
He said it was possible that the students registered as part of a partisan voting drive.
Of the 19 students who registered, seven enrolled as Democrats, seven declined to choose a party, four registered as Republicans and one was a Green Independent. Their ages ranged from 21 to 46.
Webster said the problem was that the students hadn't planned to stay in Maine.
He added, "It's obvious to me that these people never intended to stay here because they never voted again in Maine."
According to news reports from 2004, the students returned to St. Matthew's in 2005. However, there is no law that requires individuals who establish residency and vote in Maine to remain here for a specific period.
Voters must meet three requirements to establish residency. An individual must be a U.S. citizen, must establish and maintain a residence in the municipality where the person intends to register to vote and must be at least 18 years old.
The law also allows an individual to use a "nontraditional" address, such as a dormitory, to establish residency when registering to vote. According to Bartlett, the hotel doubled as a dormitory for the displaced students because there wasn't sufficient housing at St. Joseph's College.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 ruled that college students can list their dormitories as their residences to establish residency and to vote. That decision has irked Webster and others who believe students can affect local or legislative elections, even though they might leave.
In 2008, the Legislature killed a Republican-backed bill designed to prohibit out-of-state college students from voting in the communities in which their schools were located. Attorney General Steven Rowe said the proposal was unconstitutional under the 1979 ruling.
Webster did not accuse the 19 students of committing fraud. However, his release follows a series of statements in which the GOP chairman has attempted to raise questions about potential gaming of Maine's election system.
Only two prosecutions for voter fraud have taken place in Maine in recent years.
Webster has ramped up the fraud rhetoric since the Republican-controlled Legislature last session repealed Maine's 38-year-old, same-day-registration law and required registration no closer than three business days before an election.
On Thursday, the Maine Secretary of State's Office certified a people's veto effort to restore same-day voter registration in Maine. The issue will be on the November ballot.
Members of the coalition hoping to restore same-day voter registration say Webster is making outrageous claims about out-of-staters and outsiders in an attempt to confuse voters.
Webster said he's simply representing the views of his party and regular people.
"I'm an oil-burner repairman and I bring to this party regular views from regular people," he said. "And regular people won’t be happy to think that someone is voting who has no intention of living here."
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, had a different view.
"Charlie Webster's campaign to intimidate voters and mislead the general public has gone too far," Grant said in release. "First he was attacking college students, now he's attacking victims of a natural disaster who had moved to Maine."
He added, "He's ruined his integrity. He's ruining the Republicans' integrity. And, he's damaging our entire political system through his fear-mongering and lies. It's embarrassing us as a state and as Mainers. Quite frankly, it's time for his colleagues within the Republican Party to join us in standing up against it."
Webster said he has the full support of the GOP. He said he was undeterred by criticism from Democrats.
"The left can make me their bogeyman if they want," he said. "I don't care."