LEWISTON — A letter sent by Mayor Shane Bouchard to new voters who registered at the polls during last year’s election has been met with criticism from Maine’s Secretary of State, the City Council president and Bates College students, who say the notice is nothing more than “scare tactics” to deter students from voting.
In his City Hall office Wednesday, Bouchard said the letter, which describes the expectations of a voter following registration, was purely “informational,” meant to clear up post-election confusion he saw on social media about state law.
He said the letter was sent to all new voters, not only Bates College students.
However, students said the letter causes more confusion by using select information from the Secretary of State’s website, while leaving out more important information about student voting rights.
The letter, dated Feb. 5, was sent to 221 people. In it, Bouchard wrote, “By registering to vote in Lewiston, you have declared residency in Maine, which has consequences for compliance with other Maine laws.”
The letter lays out the state’s requirements when someone declares residency in Maine, including getting a Maine driver’s license and vehicle registration.
During last year’s municipal election, 481 voters were under the age of 25 and registered with a Bates College address.
Bouchard, a Republican, said the letter was not an attempt to dissuade students from voting. It begins by welcoming and thanking the new voter. After all, he said, those registering at the polls presumably voted in last year’s election and mayoral runoff against Ben Chin, and Bouchard won.
“Most people have no idea what the requirements are. It’s making sure people are aware, because it’s not information that’s really out there,” he said. “And when it is put out there, it’s used in a negative way.”
He said he wanted new voters to have “the actual facts” after registering, rather than seeing incorrect information on social media.
‘An affirmative right to vote’
Secretary of State Dunlap said Wednesday that Bouchard’s letter, while factual, is “constructed backwards” and implies that if a voter does not comply with the motor vehicle statutes after voting, they are a criminal.
“I categorically disagree with that,” Dunlap said. “There’s pretty much no connectivity between motor vehicle statutes and election law. As an American citizen, you have an affirmative right to vote, and then we work backwards from that. We don’t take all these other administrative responsibilities and say you have to live up to all of this before you can be a voter in the state of Maine.”
Dunlap said he was drafting a letter to send to Bouchard.
For Bates students, the language in the letter is reminiscent of anonymous notes that were left on student vehicles in 2016, which incorrectly said students were required to update driver’s licenses and register their vehicles in Lewiston prior to voting.
During the City Council meeting Tuesday, council President Kristen Cloutier, who works for the college, said she found out about the letter after a call from a constituent. With Bouchard by her side, she said the letter was not representative of the views of the City Council, and that it was drafted without any input from councilors.
She said it’s “disappointing” that Bouchard didn’t reach out to the Secretary of State’s office prior to issuing the letter. After getting a copy of the letter, Cloutier said she reached out to Dunlap’s office directly.
College students voting in the local municipality has become somewhat of a perennial issue.
Gov. Paul LePage said in 2016 that students who wanted to vote should register their cars in Maine and pay taxes locally if they expected to vote. But in response, Dunlap said students had a “fundamental” right to vote and that updating driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations first was not a requirement in Maine.
Bouchard said Wednesday that his letter “does not imply that you have to do these things before voting.”
According to the Maine Secretary of State’s voting residence fact sheet, “If you are a student, you have the right to register in the municipality in Maine where you attend school.”
The fact sheet, which is also where Bouchard pulled his information, also states, “Maine law expressly provides that you will not gain or lose residency solely because of your presence in or absence from the state while attending school, and this provision may not be interpreted ‘to prevent a student at any institution of learning from qualifying as a voter’ in the town ‘where the student resides while attending’ that school.”
Dunlap said Wednesday that letters like Bouchard’s are often “directed at college students.” He said last year in Orono, an email spread among students that said if you registered to vote and voted in Orono, you could lose your out-of-state financial aid.
“That scares the hell out of a kid,” he said.
Dunlap previously served on the now-defunct presidential commission on election integrity, and he sued the Trump administration for access to information about the commission’s work that he had been denied.
Dunlap was at Bates College last week, where he spoke about his experiences on the voter fraud commission.
Max Gardner, a sophomore at Bates who serves as communications director of the Bates Democrats, said the group is “incredibly disappointed with Bouchard’s misleading letter” sent to many Bates students, particularly since he is mayor.
“The unabridged right to vote in this country is fundamental and the mayor is clearly trying to use scare tactics to suppress turnout among Bates students,” Gardner said.
“The mayor chose to selectively pick pieces of Maine law which could be useful to scare Bates students from voting,” he said, but Dunlap “has repeatedly asserted Maine college students’ right to vote in their respective localities — and, as the chief election official of our state, we will follow his guidance.”
Gardner said, “Bates students know our rights and we will keep all of our options open as this situation develops. Nonetheless, this all could be resolved quickly if the mayor publicly retracts this letter and apologizes for its misleading and inaccurate message.”
Gardner pointed out that “as Maine residents, state income tax is deducted from all of our paychecks and we pay state sales tax with all of our in-state purchases.”
The Lewiston Democratic Party issued a statement calling Bouchard’s letter “a blatant abuse of power.”
“We hope the City Council will hold him accountable for his actions,” it said.
The party vowed to “continue to fight for every citizen’s right to cast a vote and make their voice heard.”
City Administrator Ed Barrett said postage to send out the letters cost $99.17, and that processing was done by office staff “within their existing workday.”
He said he was not aware of any responses to the letter from residents.
Bouchard said that he somewhat expected political rivals to “spin” his letter as intimidation, calling it “political opportunism.” He said if his letter were truly aimed at voter suppression, he’d be motivating a base of people to vote against him.
“Why would I do that?” he said.
Staff writer Steve Collins contributed to this report.
Voters line up to get their runoff ballots at Longley Elementary School in Lewiston in December 2017. Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard issued an informational letter last week to new voters in the city. Some say it is an attempt to deter students from voting. (Sun Journal file photo)
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap speaks at Bates College last week about his time on the national voter fraud commission. On Wednesday, Dunlap responded to a letter sent to new Lewiston voters from Mayor Shane Bouchard. (Sun Journal file photo)
A letter from Mayor Shane Bouchard was sent to 221 people in Lewiston who registered at the polls during last year’s election in November and mayoral runoff in December.