My first reaction to Lewiston Mayor Shane Bouchard’s recent “informational” letter to new voters was: “Doesn’t this guy have anything better to do?” My second reaction was: “Not if he’s a Republican.”

Voter “fraud” has become something of an obsession with the GOP. Despite overwhelming empirical evidence that it rarely occurs, Republicans have initiated all sorts of measures purportedly designed to prevent fraud but actually intended to suppress voter participation by those less likely to check the “R” box – such as college students and people of color.

Bouchard’s letter, dated Feb. 5, was sent to 221 voters who registered at the polls during last year’s November election and subsequent December mayoral run-off (which Bouchard, a Republican, narrowly won by 145 votes).

After thanking the new voters for registering, Bouchard got down to business. He cautioned them that registering to vote entails declaring residency in Maine, which, in turn, requires obtaining a motor vehicle license and registration within 30 days of establishing residence here, as well as becoming subject to state income taxes.

This letter was not discussed with or approved by the Lewiston City Council or the Maine Secretary of State’s office. Bates students, frequent targets of local GOP politicians for their practice of choosing to register and vote in Lewiston while attending college (481 did so in last fall’s municipal election), understandably saw the letter as a scare tactic to keep them away from the polls.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap pulled no punches in his assessment of Bouchard’s letter. In his own letter to city officials, Dunlap said he didn’t see how “offering foreboding warnings of dire consequences from failing to oblige administrative requirements attendant to establishing residency can be construed as anything other than an effort to discourage our fellow Americans from participating in their constitutional right to self-governance…”

While collateral legal consequences might ensue from failing to update a driver’s license or register a motor vehicle, Dunlap noted, it “doesn’t prevent one from voting.” He also pointed out that a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case (United States v. Symm) held it a violation of the 26th Amendment to deny college students the presumption of a bona fide residence.

Dunlap knows a thing or two about fraudulent claims of voter fraud. In February 2017, he was appointed as a member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a group formed to investigate Pres. Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that 3 to 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election. When the salty Mainer sensed that the Commission was working in a secretive manner to reach a pre-determined conclusion without full participation and knowledge of all its members, he called foul.

Last November, Dunlap filed suit against the Commission Chair Vice-President Pence and others, alleging that, since the body’s initial meeting on Sept. 12, 2017, he had “received no information or updates from Commission staff or leadership about ongoing active research, inquiries for research requests, documents for consideration at future meetings, or any information about the Commission’s plans to hold another meeting.”

In December, a federal judge ordered the Commission to provide Dunlap with information, working documents and correspondence relating to its work. The following month, President Trump used such “endless legal battles at taxpayer expense” as an excuse to abruptly disband the Commission.

The challenge of winning the popular vote must be a terrifying prospect for the Republicans. It’s about the only lever of power they haven’t managed to lock up tight, and it’s the most unpredictable. They already monopolize the corporate board rooms of America and have a clear advantage in political fundraising. The GOP also controls both houses of Congress and the White House, as well as most of the country’s governorships and state legislatures, but that could change at any time.

Voters in a democracy, when displeased, have an unsettling habit of “throwing the bums out.” American voters have become restless with the status quo, and, to the discomfiture of Republicans, are increasingly of a demographic (non-white, urban and young) which might, if energized and mobilized, throw them out.

The GOP response? If you can’t be certain of beating the competition fair and square, change the rules to make sure you win the game anyway.

Republican officials have employed an array of effective techniques to make sure they retain their edge – ranging from gerrymandering of voting districts (arbitrarily drawing boundary lines so as to consolidate the opponent’s voters into as few districts as possible in order to dilute their influence) to shortening poll hours, restricting last-minute voter registration, requiring picture IDs for registration, and trying to intimidate voters (a la Mayor Bouchard).

These ploys may seem brazen, but they’re hardly unprecedented. The most notorious example can found in the period from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when African-Americans, despite being guaranteed the right to vote by the 15th Amendment in 1870, were almost universally prevented from doing so in the South by voter suppression tactics, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, backstopped by physical violence and ominous threats.

If Republicans are really serious about their commitment to democracy and truly believe they’ve got a better plan to keep America strong, free and prosperous, they should redouble their efforts to persuade voters, instead of trying to keep them from voting, in order to win elections.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

Elliott Epstein

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