On February 28, Lewiston’s mayor, Shane Bouchard, sent a letter out to 221 people, Bates students and community members alike, that can be understood as voter intimidation or an attempt to subdue the vote.
This is not the first time a letter has been sent out to Bates students seeming to attack their constitutional right to vote. The Sun Journal reported a similar incident that occurred on November 5, 2016 wherein orange fliers were disseminated throughout the campus erroneously telling students that in order to vote, they must have a valid driver’s license registered in Maine. That same year, there was a movement to change the date of the vote to June, which would have precluded many Bates students from voting.
Zach Guion ’19, President of Bates Democrats, notes that following Ben Chin’s first run for mayor in 2016, “the local Republican Party sought to move local elections from November to June. Some of them claimed it was to make it easier for folks who spend their winters in Florida to vote, but others were very open about the fact that it was directed at Bates students who had voted.” The Republican party spun this issue as a means for snowbirds to vote, hiding its true goal.
Peggy Rotundo, Director of Strategic and Policy Initiatives at the Harward Center and former member of both the State House and Senate, sees a concerning pattern that was evident before the most recent letter. “In my sixteen years in the Legislature, it seemed that the Republicans sponsored legislation each session designed to make it harder for out of state students to vote in Maine,” Rotundo notes.
In his most recent letter, Mayor Bouchard states in the second paragraph that he wants to remind the registered voters of Lewiston that there are “certain duties” that accompany the right to vote.
For example, he states that “[b]y registering to vote in Lewiston, you have declared residency in Maine, which has consequences for compliance with other Maine laws. If you drive a car in Maine, you are required to obtain a Maine driver’s license within thirty days of establishing residency…” The letter goes on to state that “[d]riving without a Maine license more than ninety days after establishing residency is a crime under Maine law.”
In a statement made directly to The Bates Student, Mayor Bouchard maintains, “[t]he letter is purely informational. The information is accurate. No group was targeted for any nefarious purposes.”
The Bates Republicans say that “[t]he fact that less than half of the letters were sent to Bates students makes the narrative that this was a targeted effort difficult to believe.”
When asked bluntly if this letter was an intimidation tactic to prevent Bates students from voting in further elections, Mayor Bouchard did not have a concise response.
Instead, he answered the question with questions of his own: “how is a letter that went out to all newly registered voters across the city to be construed as aimed at students?” and “how is an outline of what is legally required of new registrants at all intimidating?”
In the letter Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap sent to Mayor Bouchard on March 9, Secretary Dunlap unpacks the mayor’s statement and puts the letter into context.
Secretary Dunlap writes, “[w]hile the letter’s contents are indeed factual, I must observe that the respective processes are not relational; constructing them as such leaves the right to vote as subordinate to bureaucratic checklists – which neither the constitution nor the statues template – and further it does seem to be a rather awkward way to welcome new residents into a community.” Secretary Dunlap goes on to say, “[w]hile you cite the requirements in law accurately, what is not included is any information that ties these requirements to voting. U.S. citizens who have reached the age of majority have, in the State of Maine, an unquestionable right to vote.”
That last sentence is key: not having a Maine driver’s license does not preclude a person from voting. Secretary Dunlap further notes that connecting the need to register a car in Maine and the right to vote “…only arouses unfounded fear in the minds of the voting public, and is a disservice to the public discourse.” The letter sent by Mayor Bouchard, while not technically incorrect, blurs the lines between two different segments of the law, with the result of intimidating its recipients. For example, residency is not voluntary “established,” it happens when a person moves to a new place, therefore it is not a crime to drive in Maine without a Maine license.
Kristen Cloutier, City Council President worries over Mayor Bouchard’s “lack of transparency” in this letter. Cloutier emphasizes that this letter was sent out on behalf of the mayor only, not the entire City Council and the mayor did not alert the rest of City Council to its publication prior to its mailing. Since the letter was sent on behalf of the mayor, rather than City Council, and it was printed on City of Lewiston supplies, it could be construed as a misappropriation of city funds.
Brian Wauford ’18, a recipient of Mayor Bouchard’s “welcome,” commented that “[w]hen I first read the letter I was really panicked, it made me initially regret registering to vote. I was especially worried because the letter directly quoted a stature from the Maine law.”
Quoting law that many students do not fully understand makes it easier to believe that the intent of the letter was to cause unease in the community, specifically towards the more liberal voting demographic of the Bates community.