The Bates role in local voting has taken center stage over the past few weeks. First, to clarify the current state of the municipal election: there will be a mayoral runoff election on December 8 at Longley Elementary School. In Lewiston, mayoral candidates must obtain an outright majority of the votes cast in an election to win; Ben Chin received 44 percent of the votes and Mayor Robert Macdonald received 37 percent of the votes, and so these candidates will compete in the runoff. Anyone who has not yet registered or who did not vote on November 3 still has the opportunity to vote in the runoff.
Chin actually won in three of the seven wards, two of which contain many Bates voters. This fact sparked action around a petition that pushes to have municipal elections moved to June (initiated by Luke Jensen, one of the mayoral candidates who lost). Essentially, this would require any Bates student who wants to vote in the municipal election to vote absentee, indirectly, yet intentionally, discouraging the “liberal” college student vote. This initiative, much like voter ID laws and laws banning same-day registration, suppresses the electoral voice of a large group of people. It should not matter the political party you identify with or how long you’ve lived here; all people in a community should have equal accessibility to casting their vote. Aside from the sway of Bates’ vote, there are many other arguments circulating about why students should not be voting municipally. I would like to deconstruct these arguments, made by long-time residents and Bates students alike, in order to assuage the discomfort as well as encourage students to speak out about why voting here is important to them.
A frequent argument being made about the ethics of college students voting is the fact that they do not pay property tax. This is problematic in that property tax necessitates owning property, and property of ownership as a marker of voter eligibility has been outlawed since 1828. However, if this argument is really about whether college students have “skin in the game” in Lewiston, Bates students’ economic impact is very real. First, Bates is the fifth largest employer in Androscoggin County, according to Maine.gov from 2015. Our tuition therefore goes towards the salaries of many Lewiston residents. Additionally, we pay significant sales tax on things like Forage bagels, Pure Thai, and especially PBR at Lewiston Variety. If you drive through a toll, you pay taxes. If you do work-study, you pay taxes. If you live off-campus, you pay rent and are indirectly paying property tax for your apartment. Bates students should be able to vote towards what those tax dollars go towards.
Another argument being made is that Bates campus and Lewiston are two separate entities, and that laws made in Lewiston do not affect college students. However, if a law is made in regards to improving the sidewalks and roads down College Street, that would affect all the nordies who speed skate through them. If a law was proposed to start treating our Lake Auburn water with fluoride, it would affect the lives of Batesies who hate going to the dentist. If a law was passed taxing the properties of nonprofits (which was proposed and shot down last year) it would greatly affect the price of our college tuition as well the ability for many local organizations like Tree Street and the Lewiston Public Library to sustain themselves. Bates students are perfectly entitled to vote along lines of self-interest because laws made here do affect students.
Along the same lines, not only should Bates students be able to vote out of their own self-interest, but they should also be able to vote because they care about their neighbors. Bates was founded on the principles of informed civic action. Evidence of this action is proved by over 12,000 community-engaged hours recorded by students for the 2014/2015 academic year, according to the Harward Center in the report regarding Civic Engagement at Bates 2014-2015. This includes work done through work study, Bonner, education placements, and by students who merely want to explore the wonderful organizations that exist in our city. Many students are active community members and care not just about how municipal laws affect us, but also the middle school students that we tutor in math, the New Mainers that we teach ELL, and the elementary kids that we play basketball with at Tree Street.
It has also been claimed that students only live here “9 months of the year” and many do not plan on staying. Students should therefore not vote on things that affect the future of Lewiston if they do not plan on being here to experience it. Firstly, young adults rarely spend more than a few years in one place at a time. Between the wanderlust mentality of millennials and a job market that requires locational flexibility, four years is quite a significant part of our lives. Ask any mother who is taken aback by her son or daughter calling their dorm home — those 36+ months can be very grounding. However, the amount of time that you live some place should not qualify capacity to vote. Teddy Rube, president of Bates Democrats, brought to light that the same standard of “time commitment” is not held to people with job contracts. No one is criticizing a 40-year-old insurance company manager for voting in Chicago even though he knows he is going to move back to New York in three years.
Now that we have established that Bates students do live in Lewiston and do make both time and economic investments here, I would like to address the issue of voter suppression. “Bates students vote liberally and do not represent the sentiments of Lewiston residents.” What is the general sentiment of Lewiston residents? We will never know! An election can never accurately represent the political leanings of a population. Voting is not required; consequently only a small non-generalizable portion of a population’s voice is heard in any election. There are many people in Lewiston who are legal non-citizens who pay taxes and work, yet are not able to have their voice heard because of the lengthy asylum process. There are many people in Lewiston who work more than one job and do not have time to go to the polls. There are people in Lewiston who are perpetually discouraged by their continued marginalization through local political leadership and thus refuse outright to vote. The only way for an election to get closer to an accurate representation of the population is to increase voter turnout among all groups of people, including college students. This petition does the opposite.
In the end, the Supreme Court already decided in the Symm v. United States case of 1979 that college students can choose the community that they want to vote in, be it their college town or the town they live in when not in school. This choice is not dependent on the time spent there, property tax paid, or community service hours contributed. I encourage all students who feel disheartened by the petition to vote in the runoff, and also to express their thoughts in Sun Journal op-eds, at city council meetings, and in conversations with their peers.
“The relationship our community has with Bates and students is invaluable. Our city has benefited from the deep rooted connection students feel who have gone above and beyond for their community. Do not let this petition deter you from your continued involvement in your community. Lewiston needs you. We see you. We appreciate you.” -Melissa Dunn, long-time Lewiston resident