On Monday morning, I was returning from being tested at Merrill when a man walked up to me and shoved a clipboard and pen in my face. He implored me to sign “in support of free and fair elections.” Looking at the clipboard, I noticed pages full of the names of fellow Bates students. After all, I thought, what reasonable person would object to supporting a fundamental tenet of our democracy?
Given that the Bates population is extremely liberal, I suspect many students would have objected to signing if it had been transparent, as the petition was for a state amendment to require voters to show proof of citizenship at the polls. Such citizenship policies are effectively a legal form of voter suppression, forcing immigrants to jump through hoops and provide a complicated array of legal documents in order to cast their ballots. The result is that the legitimate votes of immigrants and people of color are thrown out, and voters are discouraged from going to the polls due to the fear that their citizenship may be questioned.
The potential impacts of such policies are not just abstract, given that Lewiston Democrat and Bates alum Jared Golden ‘11 was elected to the House by a margin of 3,000 votes in 2018. It is possible that the results of tight races in Lewiston could be affected if the Democratic-leaning votes of 10,000+ Somali Americans are directly or indirectly suppressed. Indeed, the fact that Bates students tend to vote overwhelmingly Democrat, has led to attempts at passing voter suppression laws.
However, the encounter I had at Merrill was troubling due to not only the specific policy goal in question, but also the nature of campus petitioning. At an interpersonal level, these campaigns are not only annoying, but also currently present a public health risk by violating social distancing, as a COVID-19 positive collector could potentially expose hundreds of students to the virus.
In a broader context, campus petitioning looks much more like a corrupt industry than an institution of grassroots democracy. Some collectors can make up to 8 dollars per signature and the drives are often run by business interests who need signatures for harmful policies that lack legitimate public support. Especially for causes that college students are likely to oppose, deceptive phrasing like “supporting free and fair elections” becomes necessary to obtain signatures. Such tricks are not only common but often venture into illegal territory. In August, Kanye West was disqualified from the Virginia ballot and reprimanded after his campaign was discovered to have fraudulently obtained signatures supporting his presidency by asking “if they would like to serve in a statewide pool of electors.”
This is not to say that all signature-gathering campaigns are bad; in fact, many help support legitimate causes. However, we should remember that not everyone is honest or has our best interests at heart, even if they say so. It is always a good idea to find out exactly what you are supporting if you find yourself in this situation and ask questions, even if it is inconvenient.
When asked for official policy on this issue, a spokeswoman for Bates College, Mary Pols, wrote in an email: “Signature collectors for ballot initiatives often engage members of the Bates community on public ways and city property surrounding campus, e.g. sidewalks, crosswalks, etc. On the Bates campus itself, the college has clear visitor policies with respect to public health and COVID-19. In addition to the Bates website, signage is distributed throughout the campus with our masking policy. Campus Safety was aware of this group and spoke with them, advising them on our policies.”