Voter intimidation or voter education?

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FARMINGTON — The Secretary of State’s Office has no plans to take action on a local activist’s banner displayed outside the Community Center polling station Tuesday, a spokesman said Wednesday.

The banner by Bill Crandall of Farmington apparently intimidated some University of Maine at Farmington students, causing them not to vote, according to emails, texts and Facebook posts made known to the Franklin Journal.

Attempts by reporters to speak to students who interacted with Crandall on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Crandall stood in the rain handing out flyers Tuesday that repeated what was on his banner. The words were the same as those on the website for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, although Crandall emphasized references to requirements such as obtaining a Maine driver’s license and registering vehicles within 30 days of establishing residency, and being subject to Maine income tax.

“It is our office’s understanding that this person was not impeding voters’ access to the polls, and as he was not campaigning, he was not violating the distance restrictions,” Kristen Muszynski, director of communications for the Secretary of State’s office, wrote in an email Wednesday.

“We are told he was handing out a piece of paper from our website that explains college student voting. Thus, it is allowed per free speech protections,” she said.

She emphasized points from the statement on the banner: U.S. citizens who have reached the age of majority — in Maine it’s 18 — have an unquestionable right to vote and that right cannot be impinged upon based on compliance with other laws that relate to residency. The requirements in Maine law that relate to residency were not crafted with the intent to pose as barriers that must be overcome before a citizen can exercise the right to vote.

“The Secretary of State’s office does not track whether registered voters follow through with motor vehicle laws,” Muszynski said.

“It is our position the right to vote is constitutional and should not be inhibited,” she said.

Zach Heiden, legal director for American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said Crandall’s message is “very concerning.”

“It is plausible for someone to want to educate the public about motor vehicle laws but to do so in such a way as this, outside of a polling location on Election Day, could be linked to voter suppression and intimidation,” Heiden said.

“People who do these things often have their own political goals in mind. Motor vehicle laws have nothing to do with voter eligibility and the ability to exercise a constitutional right to vote,” he said.

An ACLU board member and a voter protection lawyer were at the Community Center while Crandall was there, Heiden said.

“They did a tremendous job of being vigilant and letting people know they had the right to vote,” he said. “We don’t know that any students were actually intimidated and [did] not vote. We do know there were many students that were not intimidated.”

Heiden said he did not believe ACLU Maine would pursue the issue with the secretary of state.

According to Katie Starkie, a senior at UMF, the student body received an email Monday about voting requirements. 

The email from the chairman of the Diversity and Inclusion Action Team, read:

Dear Students,

If you are a first-time voter you can vote in tomorrow’s election in Farmington. Here are the (details):

Maine has same-day registration. Students vote (8 AM-8PM) at the Farmington Community Center: 127 Middle Street.  You will need these items:

1) A state-issued photo ID (it can be your UMF ID or a driver’s license from another state)

2) Something that has your local address on it (e.g. a utilities bill). If you live in a dorm on campus, please stop by the housing or Student Life office today or tomorrow in the Olsen Student Center for a document verifying you live on campus.

Happy voting!

Later, another email from the team went out to students that read:

Hello Students,

As a follow-up to yesterday’s voting email: this misleading sign was spotted near a local polling place.

You are indeed allowed to register to vote in Maine, and to vote in this election, as long as you have the documents I outlined in my previous email.

This sign is erroneous.

It is unknown if the students who left without voting ever returned.

“My motivation was to educate the public about the expectation and responsibilities of registering to vote,” Crandall said Wednesday. “It was not my intention to intimidate anyone. I did not tell anyone they could not vote.”

Crandall said he made the decision to educate the public months ago, following a Maine News Center interview with Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. He had the sign made then.

According to www.newscentermaine.com, Dunlap was last interviewed by the station June 24. Dunlap discussed the lessons learned and cost of the state’s first election that used ranked-choice voting. Voter registration was not mentioned in the four-minute interview. 

“I wanted to start a discussion and make sure people know that by registering to vote they are signing a contract,” Crandall said. “Part of that contract is to change their license and register their vehicle within 30 days of establishing residency. That law is the same for anyone who moves.”

Crandall suggested there was a motive behind the emails sent to students. On the ballot was a $49 million bond issue for the remodeling of existing facilities or construction of new buildings within the University of Maine System.

The ballot question passed 54 percent to 46 percent.

“This wasn’t about in-state students,” Crandall said. “This was about educating out-of-state students about the obligation of our system.”

According to an Oct. 15 UMaine census, there are 2,040 students attending UMF, 299 of whom are from out of state.

There are nearly 6,000 out-of-state students enrolled in the UMaine system. According to a 2016 Portland Press Herald story, of the 68,500 college students in Maine at the time, about 16,500 — 24 percent — were from out of state.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1979 established that college students can choose to vote in their home state or in the state where they attend college. 

A UMF statement released Wednesday from F. Celeste Branham, vice president for student and community services at UMF, read, “As an educational institution with a long tradition of public service, we are committed to encouraging the active participation of our students in the democratic process and to safeguarding their right to be civically engaged in the communities in which they reside.”  

Crandall said it was the university’s responsibility to educate students about the contractual obligation of registering.

“That is what it is — a contract. You sign your name,” he said. “Once these students declared Maine residency by registering to vote, will their UMF tuition rate change to in-state? It is my understanding it is not easy to change from an out-of-state to a resident student,” Crandall said.

According to a post on the secretary of state’s website that is directed at students: “If you pay ‘out-of-state tuition’ as a student at a Maine college or university, that does not preclude you from establishing residency in Maine for voting purposes. If you have established residency in another municipality or state, you may vote by absentee ballot in that state.” 

Crandall, who is known as an advocate for many social and local issues, including poverty and countywide broadband internet access, volunteers extensively and sits on several boards of directors. He is employed by Western Maine Community Action in Wilton, but was not representing the agency while in Farmington on Tuesday.

Farmington Town Clerk Leanne Dickey on Wednesday reported 460 new registrations filed Election Day, compared to 533 in 2016.

Managing Editor/weeklies A.M. Sheehan and Staff Writer Donna Perry contributed to this report.

Bill Crandall of Farmington stands outside the polls Tuesday at the Farmington Community Center, beside a banner some voters apparently found intimidating. (Donna M. Perry/Sun Journal file photo)

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