AUGUSTA — Maine Republican Party Chairman Charles Webster said Monday he’s uncovered more than 200 cases of election fraud in Maine.
And he says as many as 8 to 10 percent of the out-of-state students he saw registered to vote in Maine were registered to vote in two places.
Maine election law states that, in order to register, a voter has to declare Maine as his or her residence and intends to return there after absences.
“Our election laws need reform and I believe are being abused,” Webster said at a State House news conference.
Webster — who said he conducted his investigation as a private citizen, not as GOP leader — said he thinks the fraud he’s found is just “the tip of the iceberg,” and he asked Secretary of State Charles Summers to formally look into the matter.
Webster’s inquiry comes after Democrats bristled at a Republican-led bill signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage that nixed same-day voter registration in Maine. Opponents of the law said it aimed to fix a problem that didn’t exist.
In response, Webster said he looked at the names of students at four state universities who enrolled in school as nonresidents but who also registered to vote in Maine last year.
After the conference, Webster said he requested the names of out-of-state students at the University of Maine in Orono, the University of Maine at Farmington, the University of Maine at Machias and the University of Southern Maine’s campus in Gorham.
He said he checked those names against voter registries in those towns. Once he did that, he checked the remaining names against registries in students’ hometowns.
Without revealing names, he said 206 individuals with Maine voter registrations had hometowns outside Maine, mostly in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. If private colleges released records, the number of cases would escalate, Webster said.
He blamed the issue on “liberal interest groups.”
“The majority of these students, they’ve been exploited by groups that know better,” Webster said in a telephone interview. “MoveOn.org, ACORN — these liberal groups — for them, it’s about winning elections.”
Webster released the information amid a people’s veto referendum drive aimed at blocking a newly enacted law that ends Election Day voter registration in Maine — a policy that’s been in place for almost four decades.
“I would rather see it 20 days,” said Webster at the conference, referring to a wait period between a voter’s registrations.
Webster’s claims of fraud were quickly shot down by Democrats and leaders of a coalition trying to force a statewide repeal vote.
“Charlie Webster has now made this about disenfranchising college voters,” said House Minority Leader Emily Cain, a Democrat whose district includes the UMaine campus. “They’re trying to justify a bad law change.”
Cain is also a UMaine doctoral student and part-time employee.
UMaine Dean of Students Robert Dana said the university’s nonpartisan get-out-the-vote program, UVote, boosted voter participation on campus.
“College students are good citizens and want to be good citizens,” Dana said. “I don’t think they want to knowingly defraud the system.”
Webster’s list includes people who purportedly registered in their home states and then in Maine; international students who may not be legal U.S. citizens; and some who voted in their home states as well as Maine.
“It takes advantage of the fact that, in college towns, there are a lot of people from different localities coming together,” Dana said of Webster’s claims.
Webster contends that residency requires drivers to get a Maine license and car owners to register their vehicles in Maine.
He believes his probe, which also involved 150 to 200 phone calls to town clerks, buttresses anecdotal reports over years that voter fraud is a problem in Maine.
At least one prosecutor says it is not.
Kennebec County District Attorney Evert Fowle, one of the first signers of the people’s veto petition, said Maine’s elections are “honest, secure and well-run.”
“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,” Fowle said.
But Orono Town Clerk Wanda Thomas said get-out-the-vote efforts on campus could potentially lead to fraudulent activities.
“I’m thinking they’re being encouraged to go down and vote,” she said.
She said student groups often drop off “green cards” — essentially the same voter registration cards filed by the town, but without photo identification and a piece of mail proving residency.
These cards, Thomas said, aren’t terribly common but may not be vetted with the same rigor as in a town office.
She said her office checks them, but never sees the voter in person.
“We’re of the opinion that they don’t ask for proof or registry,” Thomas said. “I highly doubt that they do.”
Caitlin Chamberlain, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office, confirmed the office received information Wednesday from Webster.
She said a preliminary investigation will last through the week. Depending on the findings, a longer investigation could occur.
Summers said he would comply with Webster’s request and see if any of the cases need to be followed up for possible criminal action.
Maine election law states that, in order to register, a voter has to declare Maine as his or her residence and intent to return there after absences.
But that requirement is not tied to a motor vehicle law saying a person who declares Maine as their home state has 30 days to change their driver’s license to Maine.
He also acknowledged that Maine’s residency standards are vague.
“In a general sense, I’m sure a reasonable person would conclude there needs to be some clarity in terms of the election laws and motor vehicle laws,” Summers said.
Supporters say same-day registration has enabled nearly 70,000 people to vote in Maine in the last two elections.
Glenn Adams of the Associated Press and Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.