AUGUSTA, Maine - October 17 - This week, national voting rights organizations, the ACLU and Demos, as well as the local ACLU of Maine call upon the Secretary of State to cease and desist actions that threaten and intimidate legitimate voters, particularly students singled out by the Maine Republican Party earlier this year. The ACLU and Demos expressed concern that Secretary of State Charlie Summers has violated the United States Constitution and federal laws, including the federal Voting Rights Act.
“The undersigned voting rights organizations are writing to express our deep concern about your recent actions targeting legally registered students in Maine for investigatory action and sending them threatening correspondence likely to deter them from exercising their voting rights,” reads the letter signed by lawyers from the ACLU, ACLU of Maine, and Demos. “Such actions provide strong evidence that you are violating federal statutory protections against intimidation and coercion of individuals in the exercise of their right to vote, as well as constitutional protections of the right to vote.”
The ACLU and Demos express concern that the Secretary has violated Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973i(b), which reads:
“No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote...”
The demand letter refers to an investigation that was undertaken by the Secretary of State in response to a baseless complaint by the state Republican Party Chairman against 206 registered voters at Maine’s public universities, and the Secretary of State’s subsequent actions against those students. Today’s letter expresses concern that unfounded partisan allegations do not provide sufficient grounds for an investigation. Furthermore, the voting rights groups assert that the Secretary of State should have reassured students that they had done nothing wrong when he closed his investigation. Instead, the Secretary of State sent an intimidating letter to the students demanding that they rescind their Maine voter registration by October 20 or risk penalties under other state laws. Moreover, the Secretary of State enclosed “removal from registration” form which was created specifically for these legal voters.
“Secretary of State Charlie Summers abused the power of his office when he launched an investigation into students who had done nothing wrong based on partisan attack politics,” said Zach Heiden, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maine. “As the person charged with overseeing elections in Maine, Secretary of State Summers has a duty and a responsibility to treat all voters equally under the laws and the Constitution, and he failed to do that.”
In addition to violating the federal Voting Rights Act, the voting rights groups express concern that the Secretary of State violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and federal Supreme Court precedent in Symm v. United States, 439 U.S. 1105 (1979). The Fourteenth Amendment requires that all persons are entitled to “equal protection under the law” and under Symm, that means students who have changed their residency to the state of Maine for voting purposes cannot be treated differently than other residents for voting purposes.
“Under the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, all election officials must avoid actions that intimidate eligible persons from exercising their right to register and vote, and that means not targeting students or any other group with efforts to discourage participation.” said David Rubino, Counselor, Democracy Program, Demos. “The Secretary of State went too far in putting his own partisan interests over the legal obligations of his office to treat all voters impartially.”
The ACLU and Demos call on the Secretary of State to immediately, 1) issue a public statement clarifying and specifically stating that none of the students listed in Mr. Webster’s letter were found to violate any election law; 2) write directly to the recipients of his September 20, 2011 correspondence retracting his previous correspondence and specifically noting that they have been exonerated of any wrong-doing with respect to voting and are under no obligation to rescind their registration as Maine voters; and 3) cease and desist from further targeted efforts to harass, intimidate or coerce these or other legally registered Maine voters.
“We should be encouraging all eligible voters, and especially young voters, to get involved in the political process. Increased participation makes our democracy stronger,” said Katie O'Connor, Staff Attorney for the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “Instead, the Secretary of State has scared a new generation of Maine voters away from the polls. He owes these students an apology, and he owes the State of Maine a retraction of such voter suppression efforts.”
The ACLU and Demos have sent a copy of their letter to the Voting Section and the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division of the of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Maine Attorney General, and are requesting that the U.S Department of Justice commence an investigation of these potential civil and criminal violations.
The voting rights groups reiterated that the students targeted by Charlie Webster and Charlie Summers did nothing wrong when they registered and voted in Maine. The ACLU of Maine urges any student who feels threatened by the actions of the Secretary of State to contact their offices at (207) 774-5444 or firstname.lastname@example.org