By Ernest A. Canning on 9/9/2011, 4:59pm PT  

Guest blogged by Ernest A. Canning
(With additional reporting and snark by Brad Friedman)

Maine's GOP Chairman, Charlie Webster, displayed a remarkable level of ignorance about the right of college students to register and vote in the Pine Tree State during a recent appearance on local radio, weeks after virtually everyone in the state has been trying to explain to him that he is off his nut.

Earlier this summer, Webster raised eyebrows (and more than a few laughs) when he brought the names of some 200 out-of-state college students to the ME Secretary of State, seeking an investigation for "voter fraud."

"I am convinced that my research proves that [voter] fraud is a problem, and I’ve only found the tip of the iceberg," Webster said during a press conference at the State House at the time, though he shared no evidence of any of the students having voted twice, or otherwise having illegally registered.

Webster's "research" began after a petition effort was launched seeking a "voter veto" ballot initiative to reverse a law recently passed by the Republican-led state legislature ending the state's 38-year-old practice of allowing for same-day voter registration. The new Maine law is just one of many new voter suppression efforts enacted by the GOP under the wholly unsupported guise of combating "voter fraud" in states across the nation over the past several months since the GOP took over many statehouses in the 2010 election.

The state's GOP chair has apparently never heard the old axiom about once you're in a hole, stop digging...

When asked about his general concerns about "voter fraud" at the July presser, Webster claimed he had personally witnessed what he described as "polling flooding" by special interest groups. When asked to name those groups, he cited, ACORN and "obviously, the Democrat party has a plan to do that too."

While there is no actual evidence of anyone associated with either or ACORN ever having cast any illegal ballot --- at any time, in any place --- media wondered how Webster could describe Maine's Democratic Party itself as a "special interest group."

"In my opinion they are … The difference is we [Republicans] represent regular people, how’s that? We represent working class people, people who drive a truck. We don’t represent the far left of Maine," Webster is quoted by the Bangor Daily News as responding. The paper went on to quote the Kennebec County District Attorney who responded to the allegations by noting: "We have never had any suggestion made to us that the Election Day registration of voters has led to the commission of any criminal acts. ... The lack of prosecution has to do with the lack of any allegation suggesting abuses of the present system, much less any proof to back up any such assertion."

Despite the lack of evidence in support his claims of intentional "voter fraud" by ME college students, even one month later --- there have been no indictments called for by the Republican Secretary of State (a former vice chairman of the Maine GOP under Webster) --- Webster has refused to back down.

Last week, in his continuing insistence that out-of-state students should not be allowed to vote in Maine, he said, "If I want to vote, I need to establish residency. I need to register my car and pay taxes in that community. You can’t just become a student and vote wherever you want."

Charlie Webster is laughably clueless on this (or worse), as evidenced by his appearance last Friday on local radio station WGAN 560, where he was utterly shamed (if he has any) by hosts Ken Altshuler and Mike Violette...

Audio of ME GOP Chair Charlie Webster's 9/2/11 WGAN appearance:

If you haven't listened to the above, please do. It's as amusing as it is sad.

But in hopes of helping out poor, confused Charlie --- listening to the audio above makes it clear that this guy is not particularly bright --- here are a few facts.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court, as Bangor Daily News points out, long ago "ruled that students can consider a college dormitory their primary residence, which would allow them to vote in that community even if they are not full-time Maine residents."

So far, what is known about the list of 206 names Webster brought to the SoS seeking an investigation, is that half of them were not even registered in any other state previously, so couldn't have voted in two different states during the same election.

But as to the notion that someone, students in the case, must register a car, or pay income taxes locally (no doubt, most of them already pay local sales taxes, etc., but that has gone unmentioned by Webster) in order to establish residency, there is a lengthy body of case law here in the United States of America (that would be this country, Charlie, look it up if it's not ringing a bell) finding that a requirement to pay a tax before being allowed to vote is simply unconstitutional.

In Harper vs. Virginia Board of Elections (1966), which invalidated a poll tax, the U.S. Supreme Court held [emphasis added]:

We conclude that a State violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard. Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax.

In (1979), in a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a District Court finding that the Registrar of Waller County, TX failed to extend the same presumption of bona fide residency to Prairie View University students as had been extended to other Waller County residents.

As noted by the Bangor Daily News, residency within a Maine municipality can be established by [emphasis added] "a direct statement or oath, a motor vehicle registration, an income tax return, a piece of mail listing a current address or any other objective facts."

The fact that a student may not pay income taxes in Maine --- for example if they don't have a job because they go to school all the time --- or may not own a vehicle, or may have one registered in another state, does not eliminate residency or the right to vote. While a student from, say CA, cannot vote in both CA and Maine in the same election, they can treat their dorm in Maine as their residence.

Certainly, a student residing in a dorm has more extensive local contact with the community than, say, GOP Presidential candidate and former Gov. Mitt Romney, who was treated by Belmont, MA town clerk, Ellen Cushman as a local resident even though he had registered as a voter in his son's unfinished basement in Massachusetts and didn't live there, even as his principle residence was long ago established as being in CA, as GOP Presidential candidate Fred Karger has taken pains to point out.

Of course, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to uncover why the GOP has targeted college students for voter suppression in many states across the country. 2008 marked the second-largest youth voter turnout in U.S. history. The increase was especially great in precincts where college campuses are located and where younger voters preferred Obama to John McCain by a two-to-one ratio.

So while the Maine GOP has already succeeded, for the moment, in making it much harder for students to vote in the state due to their removal of same-day voter registration, the Chairman's attempt to intimidate local student voters from out of state into not voting at all is not likely to get much purchase for now. Not if the rule of law still means anything to Republicans, anyway.

Sorry, Charlie.

UPDATE 09/10/11: The Sun Journal revealed that Webster is still at it. He now complains that "19 individuals, who all listed the same hotel address, were able to register to vote and cast a ballot [in the 2004 election]."

Webster admitted that he did not call the hotel to inquire about the individuals. He contended that their circumstances were irrelevant.

As it turns out, all 19 were students enrolled in St. Matthews Univ. School of Medicine. They had moved to study in Maine when their medical school in the Grand Caymen Islands was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan. They lived at the hotel because of an insufficient number of dorms at the university.

The Sun Journal added:

In 2008 the [ME] Legislature killed a Republican-backed bill designed to prohibit out-of-state college students from voting in the communities in which their schools were located. Attorney General Steven Rowe [D] said the proposal was unconstitutional under the 1979 ruling [in Symm vs. United States establishing the right of college students to treat their dorms as their residence for voting purposes]."

The Sun Journal also reported that on "Thursday, the Maine Secretary of State's Office certified a people's veto effort to restore same-day voter registration in Maine. The issue will be on the November ballot."

UPDATE 09/25/11: After spending two months investigating the list of students compiled by ME GOP Chair Charlie Webster, the Pine Tree State's Republican Secretary of State, Charles E. Summers, Jr., found that none of the 206 students on the list had committed voter fraud.

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Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California state bar since 1977. Mr. Canning has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science as well as a juris doctor. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968).