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News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, November 21, 2012
Impact of MMA student votes unknown in General Election tallies
Nearly a quarter of voters were students

by Anne Berleant

In the November 6 election, voters faced five local ballot questions, including whether to replace existing zoning and subdivision ordinances, both controversial issues judging by public discussions at hearings held on the proposed changes.

When the votes were counted, Castine had a new subdivision ordinance, which passed 272-266, while the proposed zoning ordinance failed 278-255. But how many of those votes came from Maine Maritime Academy students?

Town Clerk Susan Macomber said 602 total votes were cast in the general election, which also determined a U.S. president and a town selectman, won by Barack Obama and Gus Basile (in a 2 to 1 margin), respectively.

Of those 602 votes, MMA students cast roughly 145 votes, Macomber said.

“Within one or two votes, I can pretty much determine how many MMA students voted by going through the lists,” and noting the address of each voter, Macomber said.

With 553 total votes in the selectmen’s race, 538 in the subdivision ballot question and 533 in the zoning ballot question, the numbers tell the story. More than half, at least, of students who voted weighed in on the town ballot.

Other local referendum questions concerned the transfer or use of funds in specific town accounts.

But it was the idea that students would be voting on new zoning and subdivision ordinances that drew criticism in the weeks leading up to the referendum vote.

Public hearings on the proposed ordinances drew heated debates not only on how, and if, the character of the rural and village districts should change, but who should have a voice in those decisions.

“Why would this be voted on during a presidential election?” asked summer resident Micky Gast at an October 1 public hearing on proposed zoning changes. “I don’t understand why students are going to vote on anything to do with land use.”

The point was raised again and again: why the ordinances vote was being held during a general election and not at town meeting in May.

Two concerns lie behind this issue: that nonresident taxpayers were being denied a voice, even if they could not cast votes, while Maine Maritime Academy students were given one by virtue of the local referendum being held during the November election.

A November vote would result in a “major decision decided by [MMA] students,” said citizen David Schoonover at an October 1 hearing on proposed zoning changes.

With the votes on both ordinances determined by narrow margins of 23 (zoning) and eight (subdivision), the concerns of some residents that MMA students could decide town issues appears valid at first glance. However, there is no way to determine how each student voted, and whether they mostly voted for or against a specific ballot question.

Legally, any student may register to vote who fulfills the voter residency requirements, which include showing proof of address and have the intent to maintain residency in the near future. Living in a college dorm does not preclude someone from being a resident of the town where the dorm is located.

“I am a firm believer that each and every person exercise their right to vote,” said MMA President Bill Brennan in a recent interview. “Students should comport themselves as citizens, and citizens should cast informed votes.”

A second result of the student vote, said Gunilla Kettis, a member of the Hancock County Democratic Party, is that student registration may account for Castine’s relatively low voter turnout in the past election. With 1,048 registered voters in Castine, only 57 percent voted in the November election, a significantly lower turnout than other Peninsula towns.

“We have a transient population as a ‘college’ town,” said Kettis. This “skews” voter registration numbers, because registered voters are only removed from the voter rolls after four years of non-voting or if they register in another municipality which then notifies the previous town of the registration change.

One result of the question of who gets to weigh in on local issues is a warrant item approved for the May 2013 town meeting. On October 16, selectmen voted to add a warrant article that would, if supported by two-thirds of voters at town meeting, give non-resident taxpayers a blanket right to ask questions and make comments at town meeting. The warrant, if passed, would apply only for that meeting.

While a warrant to allow nonresident taxpayers to speak is not required by law—a motion can be made at the town meeting after a moderator is approved—a Maine Municipal Association lawyer recommended the measure to town officials.

Maine law requires a two-thirds vote, rather than a simple majority, for such a motion, or warrant item, to pass.