Voter suppression? Maine gov. warns college students about residency.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage is under fire for supporting fliers found on the Bates College campus indicating students must establish residency to vote in the state.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File
In this Jan. 8, 2016, file photo, Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a news conference at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Lepage said Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, that he meant to use the word "authoritative" — not "authoritarian" — to describe GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

In yet another case of alleged voter suppression, the governor of Maine stoked concerns by asserting that college students should establish residency if they want to vote in the state.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage, known for his blunt demeanor and support for Donald Trump, issued the statement in response to fliers found on the campus of Bates College that indicated, amongst other things, students must change their driver’s license in order to vote and would incur hundreds of dollars in fees during the registration process.

“Democrats for decades have encouraged college students from out of state to vote in Maine, even though there is no way to determine whether these college students also voted in their home states,” Governor LePage said in a statement. “Casting ballots in two different states is voter fraud, which is why Maine law requires anyone voting here to establish residency here. We welcome college students establishing residency in our great state, as long as they follow all laws that regulate voting, motor vehicles, and taxes. We cannot tolerate voter fraud in our state.”

But critics point out that there is no evidence that such voter fraud is occurring. While students have to follow the residency requirements to register as a voter, they don’t have to update their driver’s licenses to vote, as the state’s secretary of State Matthew Dunlap also emphasized. They say that such statements, especially in this competitive election season, are attempts to reduce the student vote that typically leans left.

“The governor’s statement seems designed to make college students afraid to vote,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Legal Director Zachary Heiden said in a statement, calling for the Department of Justice to investigate the matter. “College students who live in Maine have the right to vote in Maine, and they are not subject to different laws than anyone else. Many of these young people are voting for the first time in a presidential election. The governor should be encouraging that civic participation, not doing everything in his power to undermine it.”

Maine is not the only state that has seen such accusations. In October, an official in a Wisconsin town was accused of blocking an early voting site on a university campus based on fears that it would encourage more Democratic-leaning students to vote. Earlier this month, Brigham Young University-Idaho out-of-state students were told that registering to vote in the state means they may lose their scholarships or ability to pay in-state tuition fees in their home state, as reported by the Idaho Register. In 2011, Maine also saw an investigation into alleged voter fraud by college students.

The hurdles of showing proof of residency, absentee ballot use, and voter identification have all been cited as factors that affect student votes, as previously reported by NBC News.

Maine Secretary of State Dunlap, a Democrat, has come out against LePage’s statement by saying that the right to vote is “fundamental,” and that the claims of fraud are a “phantom menace” as municipal clerks regularly communicate with other cities to update voter rolls, according to the Portland Press Herald.

It is still unknown who was behind the fliers, and Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett also diverged from LePage and condemned the fliers as “spreading false information” to “suppress students from voting.”

The fliers indicated that students who register to vote in Lewiston, the county where Bates College is located, must pay to change their driver’s license and re-register their motor vehicle within 30 days, a process that can cost up to hundreds of dollars inclusive of a state motor vehicle inspection, as reported by The Washington Post. 

According to the secretary of state’s website, students can establish a voting residence at the Maine school address, and out-of-state students can establish residency in Maine for voting purposes. They will be subject to the same residency requirements as other potential voters. New voters who do not have a Maine driver’s license can list their Social Security number during registration.

Where a student registers to vote will not affect their federal financial aid or FAFSA status, as the Brennan Center for Justice reports, while private scholarships and grants may differ in their demands. Registration for voting purposes in a state also doesn’t usually determine tuition benefits.

As for driver's license and registration of vehicles, the requirements depend on whether the state demands out-of-state drivers to obtain a local license in the first place. Each state has different laws. Students often get exemptions for that requirement, but it might be affected by registering to vote.

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