College Students Taking Action for their Rights and the Future of Maine

Henry Beck, a sophomore at Colby College and a Waterville city councilman, and Alex Cornell du Houx, a Bowdoin College senior and Iraq War veteran, spoke at a press conference with House Speaker Glen Cummings and Senate President Beth Edmonds.

by Ramona du Houx

Upholding Students’ Rights —

Maine has a tradition of encouraging college students and its citizens to vote. The state has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation. When a bill that would limit college student participation in the voting process hit the docket in the Legislature, college students around the state mobilized and traveled to Augusta. The bill — An Act Concerning Student Voter Registration, LD 203 — would make it illegal for nonresident college students who live in dorms to vote in the town where they attend college.

Over a hundred college students waited four hours to testify to uphold their legal right.

Henry Beck, a sophomore at Colby College and a Waterville city councilman, and Alex Cornell du Houx, a Bowdoin College senior and Iraq War veteran, were invited to speak at a press conference with House Speaker Glen Cummings and Senate President Beth Edmonds, before the hearing on LD 203 began.

"I bridle at this bill because I feel like we are really trying to get young people involved in the voting process. Anytime we put up barriers such as this we send the message that we don’t want you to vote," said Edmonds.

"Research has shown that if you can get a person to vote once, they are almost five times more likely to become regular voters in their lifetime," said Cummings. "We need to encourage people to get out and vote, not discourage them by making it more difficult."

"This bill sends the wrong message to members of the college community who wish to become civically engaged. We are trying to encourage students to stay in our communities, yet this bill disenfranchises and discourages students from living and working in Maine. Living in a dorm room should not make us a second-class citizen," said Cornell du Houx.

The United States Supreme Court has established through Simms v. United States that students have the right to vote where they are domiciled.

"LD 203 tries to take away a basic right for college students, guaranteed under the Constitution. The Supreme Court has said that student status means nothing, military status means nothing. It’s where you live, where you consider your home that counts. It’s a right, not a privilege. This bill discriminates against students. Where you are domiciled is where you consider your home," said Secretary of State Matt Dunlop.

rmatt2.jpg (40852 bytes)

Secretary of State Matt Dunlop testified, upholding college students’ Constitutional right to vote in Maine.

"What if a student, who comes from Bar Harbor, but attends UMO changes his residency because he is now at college. Are we telling this Maine citizen he can’t vote? The bill is worded so that a student would have to establish residency before they became a student. So are we to say students don’t partake in the same rights that all of us do under the Constitution?"

The bill was sponsored by Republican Rep. Gary Knight and supported by the Maine Republican Party when they included the bill in their e-mail blast to activists across the state.

"LD 203 is a partisan attempt to limit the voter turnout of students across Maine," said Henry Beck, also president of the Maine College Democrats. "Most college students are liberal at the polls and certain Republicans are trying to disenfranchise our vote for partisan political reasons."

Most Maine colleges, private and public, have programs where students become active in their local towns — from tutoring, becoming mentors, planting trees, food drives, or building houses. Student community participation went up 20 percent from 2002 to 2005, so did their civic voting participation.

"We contribute to our communities," said Bowdoin College student Tom Charpentier, who grew up in Connecticut. "This is my home now. I am a resident of Maine." Charpentier has considered making Maine his home after he graduates.

"As a college professor I see students work very hard to engage themselves in the political process," said Cummings. "It is vital that we send the right message and let them know that their voice is important and their participation is crucial."

Impassioned legislators also testified against the bill, echoing Cummings’ message. The presence of so many college students during the week at the state Capitol is testimony in itself of their determination to be politically engaged. The outcome of LD 203 is still pending.

rleg.jpg (60970 bytes)

Sen. Rotundo, Rep. Cravan and Sen. Marrache prepared to testify on behalf of college students’ rights.

 

Making Education More Affordable —

Andy Bossie is an energetic, intelligent senior at the University of Southern Maine, who has deep concerns about the future of Maine and Maine’s students. Over the course of his college career, some of his friends were forced to drop out because of the exorbitant costs. Frustrated, he took action and started contacting people to form what would become Opportunity Maine.

By September of 2006, Bossie would have over 500 volunteers helping him to realize his vision of a Maine where students are rewarded with tax credits for attending college and working in Maine after graduating.

"A year ago Andy Bossie came to me with a problem. We were able to connect him with a network of allies that crossed party lines — and geographic and demographic divides," says Justin Alfond, Maine state director of the League and sitting member on the Opportunity Maine Steering Committee. In addition to helping Bossie build what would eventually become Opportunity Maine, the League also provided expertise in fundraising, innovative youth-driven field campaigns, and access to their communications channels.

ropm.jpg (59716 bytes)

Andy Bossie announced that Opportunity Maine volunteers succeeded in getting enough signatures for a referendum that offers tax credits for obtaining a degree in Maine and working in the state.

Last March the secretary of state confirmed Opportunity Maine had collected enough signatures to put a ballot question out to voters. Organizers ended up submitting more than 73,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office, which accepted 63,285 of them.

The question, "Do you want to allow a tax credit for college loan repayments to any taxpayer who earns a future college degree in Maine and continues to live and work in Maine?" will appear on the ballot in November 2007, unless the Legislature enacts it first.

"It would be wonderful if the Legislature enacted the bill, ‘An Act to Allow Tax Credits for College Loan Repayments,’ but if they don’t, I believe the citizens of Maine will. A lot of people need to leave Maine after they graduate, because they can’t afford to pay their student loans," said Bossie, who will graduate with $27,000 in outstanding student loans. "We have a wide variety of support from labor, business, and community groups. Keeping motivated graduates in Maine can only help the economy and position the state better in the global economy."

Opportunity Maine estimates that a worker in 2008 will earn over $16,000 per year more with a bachelor’s degree than with a high school diploma, and $10,000 more with an associate’s degree.

Labor and businesses leaders see the tax credits as a way to help Maine businesses by providing a better-educated workforce. Maine’s rate of degree holders is 30 percent lower than that of the rest of New England.

"Companies will come to Maine when they know that we have a better skilled workforce as a result of the tax breaks," said Bossie. "The proposal will also give businesses an option of making the student loan payments for eligible employees. Then they can take a tax credit for themselves."

Most of the students across Maine who worked on the campaign won’t benefit from their efforts directly, because the measure is not retroactive.

"We did it because we know how hard it is," said Nicole Brown, chair of the University of Maine System student government. "Young people working hard to get a degree shouldn’t have to be burdened with debt."