Secretary of State Charles Summers has sent a letter to about 200 of the Maine university students cleared in a recent voter fraud investigation, advising them to either get a Maine driver's license and register their vehicles in Maine or relinquish their right to vote here.
The one-page letter cites Maine election law, which requires that voters be Maine residents, and state motor vehicle laws, which require that new residents who drive get a Maine driver's licence and register their vehicles here. In the letter, Summers requests that students "take appropriate action to comply with our motor vehicle laws within the next 30 days." If students decide they aren't residents after all, he asks them to fill out the enclosed form to cancel their Maine voter registration.
Summers said he sent the letters because he's responsible for both election and motor vehicle laws as secretary of state, and he felt he had to follow-up on the approximately 200 people who said they lived here but who were not listed in the state's motor vehicle database.
"I'm made aware that there are people who may not be in compliance like everybody else in the state of Maine — that's why I sent it out," he said.
But others say the letter was an attempt to intimidate the students and manipulate them into giving up their right to vote here.
"My car registration ran out at the end of September. Now I renewed, but I'm a registered voter (and) I didn't get a letter from Charlie Summers asking me if I was going to re-register or if I wanted to unenroll to vote," said David Farmer, spokesman for Protect Maine Votes, which is fighting to reinstate same day voter registration in Maine. "He singled out these students and there's only one reason to do that and that's to scare them."
"Imagine you're an 18-year-old kid, a 19-year-old kid, and you get a letter from the secretary of state threatening you with a Class E crime. It's easier to just say, 'Yeah, you know, I don't know if I want to get involved in this mess.'"
The letter does not explicitly say that failure to get a driver's license or register a car can be considered a Class E crime, but it does cite the specific statutes, sections, and subsections in Maine law that do. Although Class E crimes are punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, the letter also does not say what the consequences might be for any of the 200 students who stay registered to vote and do not get a driver's license or register a vehicle here.
Casey O'Malley's parents found the letter threatening. Although O'Malley, a 21-year-old University of Maine at Farmington student originally from Rhode Island, doesn't have a car here to register or drive, her parents insisted she fill out the form that came with the letter and cancel her voter registration in Maine.
"They instantly were worried about legal ramifications if I didn't follow through on what the letter said, if I didn't completely remove my voter registration from Farmington," O'Malley said.
O'Malley registered to vote in Maine because she lives here for school and is active in a number of community, nonprofit and political organizations. She said she loves Maine and is planning to go to graduate school here. Although her parents insisted she give up her right to vote, she held off.
Instead she brought the letter to UMF's student life director, who connected her with Celeste Branham, the school's vice president for student and community services. Branham has given a copy of the letter to UMF's lawyer and is trying to figure out who at the Secretary of State's Office students can talk to about their specific circumstances.
Branham pointed to another UMF student who got the letter and drives a borrowed car owned, insured and registered by his parents, who live out of state.
"It's very upsetting," Branham said. "Our students are saying 'We're not intending to violate the law, that's not our purpose, that's not what we want to do. But we haven't registered our vehicles for legitimate reasons.'"
Branham called the letter "unfair."
"Why now? Why these students when I'm fairly certain there are many, many people in this state who have not registered their vehicles here and still claim residency and vote?" she asked. "They're not trying to do harm. They're trying to be citizens. Active citizens. And we should not be in the business of discouraging active citizenship."
The issue of student voters started over the summer just as a "people's veto" referendum campaign to restore Maine's Election Day registration system and repeal a law requiring two days' wait began to heat up. State Republican Chairman Charles Webster alleged that 206 people were registered to vote in Maine but were also enrolled in Maine's public university system as out-of-state students.
Summers investigated. In September he determined the election system was "incredibly vulnerable" to fraud, but said he found no cases of blatant wrongdoing by the students.
It is legal for out-of-state college students to vote in their college towns as long as they have established residency there. Because the university system's residency requirements for in-state tuition are vastly different from the state's residency requirements for voting, a student could pay out-of-state tuition but be allowed to vote here.
Webster could not be reached for comment Monday.
Although Summers' letter mentions the investigation, it does not say the students were exonerated. Instead, it says, "I am writing to inform you that this investigation is now closed and to convey some important information pertaining to your voter registration and residency status, based on the results of the investigation."
Summers said the letter, sent around the same time he announced the results of his investigation, was not meant to be intimidating and was not an attempt to scare anyone away from voting.
"That's the silliest thing I ever heard," he said.
He declined to say what penalties the students might face if they don't either get a Maine driver's license and register their vehicles in Maine or relinquish their right to vote here.
"The 30 days would have to lapse first before we get to that point," he said. "Then we would see. That's all. I don't want to speculate, because you're asking me to speculate on what may or may not happen. And I know how that can get you in trouble. Speculating. I'm not going to do that."
Text of the letter sent from Secretary of State Charles Summers to about 200 Maine university students:
On July 25, 2011, I was presented with a list of 206 University of Maine students with out-of-state home addresses and asked to investigate allegations of election law violations.
I am writing to inform you that this investigation is now closed and to convey some important information pertaining to your voter registration and residency status, based on the results of the investigation.
Our research shows you have registered to vote as a resident of Maine. Maine’s election law (Title 21A of the Maine Revised Statutes, section 111, subsection 1) defines “residence of a person” as “that place where the person has established a fixed and principal home to which the person, whenever temporarily absent, intends to return.”
As Secretary of State, I also oversee the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and am responsible for enforcing the laws of Maine’s Motor Vehicle Statute – Title 29A. As you may or may not be aware, Maine law requires residents of Maine, who are licensed to operate a motor vehicle, to obtain a Maine driver’s license within 30 days of becoming a resident. (Title 29A of the Maine Revised Statutes, section 1251, subsection 1A). If you are the owner of a vehicle, you are also required to register that vehicle in Maine within 30 days of becoming a resident. (Title 29A, section 351, subsection 1A)
If you are currently using an out-of-state driver’s license or motor vehicle registration, I ask that you take appropriate action to comply with our motor vehicle laws within the next 30 days (i.e., by October 20, 2011). If, instead, you are no longer claiming to be a Maine resident, I ask that you complete the enclosed form to cancel your voter registration in Maine so that our central voter registration system can be updated.
If you have any questions or concerns about this matter, please do not hesitate to contact the Division of Elections at (207) 624-7650 or the Bureau of Motor Vehicles at (207) 624-9000.