Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is running against Democratic incumbent Gov. Janet Mills in Maine's 2022 gubernatorial election, walks up to the podium at a press conference on energy policy in Falmouth on March 8. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Former Gov. Paul LePage is dusting off unsubstantiated voting claims while preparing a new push for stronger voter identification laws in a campaign against Gov. Janet Mills.

Speaking at a Republican event last week, he alleged voters were bused in from Massachusetts more than a decade ago when he was mayor of Waterville, although no such issue was reported at the time and the Democratic secretary of state of that era called the claim “a blatant lie.” He also alleged that roughly 20 percent of voters who had voted in the 2020 election in Maine lacked valid identification, even though ID is only needed to register to vote.

He cited those examples as reasons to support stronger voter identification requirements, something that would require Republican legislative majorities in Democratic-controlled Augusta. The last time Republicans controlled the State House, they passed legislation banning same-day voter registration, but the effort  was overturned by voters after a people’s veto.

“ID is the issue,” he said to cheers, indicating it as a top priority if he wins the office back.

His comments occur against a national backdrop where former President Donald Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election have been used to justify tighter voting laws in conservative states. While LePage and other Maine Republicans have generally not put Trump at the focus of their calls for election reform, his claims do not stand up to scrutiny and harken back to disputes over college students voting, a controversial but legal practice.

At a campaign event for former state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, LePage alleged voters were bused from Massachusetts to Waterville to vote ahead of Maine’s 2009 referendum on same-sex marriage, saying “we” had talked with them in a pub and they “stayed at a hotel in Waterville overnight, voted, and left the next day.”

LePage said he reported the incident to the secretary of state’s office but nothing was done about it. But former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat who served in the role from 2005 to 2011 and again from 2013 to 2021, said the allegation that people had been bused into Maine to vote in the 2009 marriage referendum was a “blatant lie.”

Neither LePage nor anybody else reported the alleged illegal voting to Dunlap’s office, he said. He said there would be no mechanism for people bused in from out-of-state to register at the last minute since they would not be able to show the required proof of residency.

The former Republican governor also told supporters that 163,000 people voted in Maine in 2020 while lacking photo identification. His campaign clarified that the number referenced not people who necessarily voted, but the number of people on Maine’s active voter rolls whose names could not be matched with a current Maine driver’s license, a figure mentioned by current Secretary of State Shenna Bellows in legislative testimony last year.

Maine does not require photo identification to vote, although it is required to register. Bellows, a Democrat, noted people in the state system without a valid license had still been required to provide identification and proof of residency to register to vote. She said many were likely older Mainers who had registered to vote a long time ago but no longer drive.

“To suggest that just because we do not have uploaded in our system a driver’s license number for these potential voters that anyone voted improperly is malinformation,” Bellows said.

LePage also claimed that the secretary of state’s office had not “purged” the voter rolls to get rid of those no longer eligible since 2011. But Bellows said her office does regular list maintenance to remove people based on vital records data under federal law. The Legislature also passed a bipartisan bill last year to make it easier for the state to compare lists with other states and identify voters who have moved.

At least one of the former governor’s claims, the one about the same-sex marriage referendum, harkens back to a broader debate during his gubernatorial tenure related to college student voting. John Fortier, who was a city councilor in Waterville while LePage was mayor, recalled turnout far higher than expected for that referendum, although he attributed that largely to students taking buses from Colby College to the polls.

The election brought record turnout for an odd-year election, state data show. Fortier said there were concerns about that high turnout, noting he was uneasy that college students energized by social issues also ended up voting on local budget issues they were less affected by.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “They’re entitled to vote as well, but there’s been a lot of discussion as to whether or not they should be voting on matters of local concern.”

Student voting has been a target of Republicans before. A 2011 investigation by then-Secretary of State Charlie Summers, a Republican, identified 77 college students registered in both Maine and another state between 2008 and 2010. But none of them voted in both places in the same election, which would have constituted fraud.

While governor, LePage sent a press release before the 2016 election warning that his administration would investigate college students from out-of-state who voted in Maine. But Maine election law requires voters to establish residency in the municipality in which they intend to vote. Residency is defined differently in other areas of state law.

This has been interpreted to allow college students to list the address of their dormitory as their residence for voting purposes. More recently, a group of Waterville residents challenged the residency of Colby College students after the city narrowly approved a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2018. A city board upheld the registrations, the Morning Sentinel reported.

There have been limited occasions of college students facing voter fraud charges in recent years. Two University of Maine students were charged with voter fraud in relation to the 2020 election after a student from Bowdoinham allegedly voted in the name of a roommate, while another from Milford allegedly voted in both Orono and her hometown.

“Anyone who votes twice will be caught and prosecuted,” Bellows said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the identification required to register to vote in Maine. While a photo ID is widely used and accepted, birth certificates and a signed Social Security card are also accepted.