Voter intimidation or voter education?

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. People who do these things often have their own political goals in mind. Zach Heiden Legal Director  Maine ACLU

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Bill Crandall of Farmington stands outside the polls at the Farmington Community Center on Tuesday, beside a banner listing the consequences of declaring voting residence by registering to vote in Maine. (Donna M. Perry/Sun Journal)

NOTE: This story has been edited from its original version to reflect the correct date of the WCSH interview with Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

FARMINGTON — In what were record voter turnouts Tuesday, some young voters in Farmington apparently left the polls without voting.

The University of Maine Farmington was abuzz November 6 with emails, texts and Facebook posts sharing angst that a large number of students who turned up to vote felt intimidated by a huge banner which appeared to be warning potential voters of the pitfalls of establishing residency in order to vote.

On Monday, according to Katie Starkie, a senior at UMF, the student body received an email with regard to voting.

The email, from the chair 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 deets:

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!

However, when students arrived they were greeted with an oversized banner that they interpreted as pointing out the pitfalls of registering to vote. Intimidated, they left.

Later in the day, another email from the team went out to students as follows:

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 had left without voting ever returned.

Bill Crandall of Farmington stood in the rain handing out flyers that repeated what his banner said. The words on the banner are the same as what are on the Maine Secretary of State’s website, although Crandall added bold emphasis that does not appear on the state website.

The bold statements on Crandall’s sign referred to the requirements of those declaring their voter residency in Maine. 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.

“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 following a WCSH interview with Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap on Oct. 3. It was then that he had the sign made, Crandall said.

“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.”

In an email Wednesday, Secretary of State Director of Communications Kristen Muszynski emphasized different points from the same statement on Crandall’s sign. Muszynski highlighted: U.S. citizens who have reached the age of majority 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.

Muszynski stated, “The Secretary of State office does not track whether registered voters follow through with motor vehicle laws. It is our position that the right to vote is constitutional and should not be inhibited.”

“This is very concerning,” said Zach Heiden, legal director for American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Motor vehicle laws have nothing to do with voter eligibility and the ability to exercise a constitutional right to vote.”

Heiden said an ACLU board member and a voter protection lawyer were on site.

“They did a tremendous job of being vigilant and letting people know they had the right to vote. 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.

Instead, Crandall said it was he who was intimidated. “I was yelled at all day by others entering the polls. I just smiled and continued to educate voters. My interactions with students were very pleasant,” he said.

Crandall suggested there was a motive behind the emails sent to students. On the ballot was a $49 million bond issue for the construction and remodeling of existing and new facilities within the University of Maine System. According to the Sun Journal, the question passed by an 8 percent margin.

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

According to an Oct. 15 UMaine census, there are 2040 students attending UMF; 299 are 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, about 16,500 – 24 percent – are 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, University of Maine at Farmington Vice President for Student and Community Services 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.”  F. Celeste Branham, University of Maine at Farmington Vice President for Student and Community Services.

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.

The law

However, according to Maine law (on the Secretary of State website), Crandall is incorrect. Maine law states (italic/bold emphasis as it appears):

“Students. If you are a student, you have the right to register in the municipality in Maine where you attend school, provided you have established a voting residence there as defined in Maine’s election laws and explained above. You can establish a voting residence at your Maine school address if you have a present intention to remain at that address for the time being, whether that residence is a dorm, apartment, house or even a hotel. 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. In other words, as a student, you must meet the same residency requirements as all other potential voters. You must first determine where you have established residency and then register to vote there. 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. “

“This is a perennial issue with student voter registration. Governor Paul LePage, along with others, used tactics in 2016 to attempt to intimidate student voters,” Heiden said. He referred to flyers distributed around Bates College in Lewiston implying students would be breaking the law if they voted without actual residency.

In 2016, according to the Portland Press Herald, “On the eve of Election Day, Gov. Paul LePage stoked fears of voter fraud by college students after fliers showed up around Bates College over the weekend that falsely said students had to register their cars and update their driver’s licenses in Maine in order to vote.

“The Republican governor lashed out at Democrats for recruiting college students to vote, saying the practice could lead to double voting, even though there is no evidence to support his assertion,” the article said.

At that time the ACLU claimed voter intimidation and urged the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

Muszynski said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap held the same stance in 2016  as he does today: a person’s status as a student is a neutral factor in exercising the right to vote.

Crandall is a well-known advocate for many social and local issues, including poverty and county-wide broadband internet access. He volunteers extensively and sits on several boards of directors. He is employed by Western Maine Community Action in Wilton.

“My decision to conduct voter-education and the effort Tuesday had nothing to do with WMCA. Absolutely and without a question – nothing,” Crandall said.

Interim Executive Director of WMCA Jim Trundy echoed that statement and was adamant in saying, Wednesday, that WMCA “had nothing to do with being at any polling places.”

Whether students were encouraged by UMF to register and vote regardless of their residency prior to elections or were discouraged by Crandall’s mission is indiscernible.

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

In Wilton, where some off-campus students voted, there was an “incredible amount of voters registering at the polls,” said Town Clerk Diane Dunham, Wednesday.

There is no way of knowing if those registrations were UFM students, said Dunham.

“Their ages were across the board but there were a lot of young voters,” she said.

Crandall stated, “In my opinion, this whole thing was blown way out of proportion. A lot of good can come out of this, though. If nothing else, it has started a discussion about the obligations of registering to vote.”

It appears as though no action will be taken against Crandall.

“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. 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,” Muszynski said about Tuesday’s incident.

Heiden said he did not believe ACLU Maine would pursue the issue with the Secretary of State.

“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. People who do these things often have their own political goals in mind,” said Heiden.

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

Editor’s Note: Any student who felt intimidated and is willing to share their experience please contact us: dmenear@thefranklinjournal.com

A.M. Sheehan and Donna Perry contributed to this story.

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