Selective enforcement and administrative activism in Maine

Yet another aspect of the politics of voting in Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News as “Integrity of law at question in voting debate.

With the newest twist in Maine politics involving voting, the specters of selective enforcement and administrative activism have come to the fore. Some questions are even troublesome to ask.

Is there one law for all? Or are some people’s lives, but not others, going to be checked over by government officials?

How terribly unfair that would be. Equal application of the law is fundamental to a fair system. Maine people know that and so do our most respected leaders.

William Cohen criticized two presidents of his party for not following the law. While a member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, Cohen voted to require President Nixon to release the White House tapes and in favor of impeachment. As a U.S. Senator, with Sen. George Mitchell, Cohen criticized the “men of zeal” of the Iran-contra scandal and proclaimed his support for the rule of law. Under that principle, everyone is to be treated equally under the law.

Moreover, the equal application of the law is written into the very fabric of our nation. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution commands “due process of law,” and the Fourteenth Amendment requires, “equal protection of the laws.” When the building housing the U.S. Supreme Court was built, the words chosen to grace its front were, “Equal Justice Under Law.”

Selective enforcement was involved when people identified by the head of the Maine Republican party were investigated by the Secretary of State and then, based on the findings (involving no fraud whatsoever), were sent a letter asking them to drop their voter registrations if they did not register their cars in Maine or had a driver’s license from another state. Also included was a form to fill out and return to remove themselves from the voter rolls.

While this occurred, was there a broader effort to examine other Maine voters? Surely there are others who fall in that category, such as snowbirds with Florida plates and Florida drivers’ licenses?

Well, no. No one else was checked. The only people investigated were those who the head of a political party brought to the attention of one of Maine’s constitutional officers.

Worse yet, the law does not require anyone to have a car registered in Maine or a Maine drivers’ license.

How does the law define residency for voting purposes? It lists criteria that “may” — not “must” — be used, saying, “The following factors may be offered by an applicant and considered by a registrar in determining a person’s residence under this section. The registrar need not find all of these factors to be present in order to conclude that an applicant qualifies to vote in the municipality.”

The rights of two sorts of people who move a lot, students and those in military service, are explicitly mentioned.

Nine items are on the list, including where a person lives and gets mail, car registration, drivers license and “any other objective facts tending to indicate a person’s place of residence.” Recall, “the registrar need not find all of these factors to be present.”

Now take another the look at the language. Who is to determine residency? That job, according to the law, is the registrar — the town clerk.

What we’ve seen recently is an interpretation of the law at variance with the plain reading of the law — which is then selectively applied. This is an administrative move that is remarkably focused while also being remarkably activist.

This administrative activism is in line with a national movement that raises burdens for voting. In Colorado, the secretary of state is preventing the county clerk in a mostly Democratic county from mailing ballots to people in military service overseas who used to get their ballots sent to them. In Florida, criminal penalties can be levied against volunteers from the League of Women Voters if they hand in numbered voter registration cards in a different order than distributed.

But those places are not Maine, not our state, with its rich traditions of civic involvement, good government and independence. Unlike Maine, those states do not proclaim, “Dirigo — I Lead.”

Surely we should expect better answers to these troublesome questions.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.