Legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. Robert Nutting of Oakland, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, would prohibit Mainers who had voted by absentee ballot from getting a do-over simply because they had experienced voter’s remorse concerning their vote the first time around.
Nutting’s bill, LD 179, would continue to allow absentee voters to ask for a new ballot should the original ballot be damaged or lost, but not because they had changed their minds in the interim between casting their vote and Election Day. One small step for man; one giant loophole closed to mankind.
Upon reading a news story about the bill in their Thursday morning newspaper, many readers may have asked themselves how there could possibly be a need for such legislation. Wouldn’t plain old-fashioned common sense — to say nothing of constitutional considerations — dictate that voters get only one bite of the apple? Why wouldn’t a vote cast by absentee ballot before an election be treated the same as a vote cast in the voting booth on Election Day? And just how did the time-honored one-person, one-vote principle get turned on its head to become a one-person, one-do-over concept, anyway?
The issue of when Maine absentee voters might ask for a new ballot arose late in last fall’s five-way gubernatorial election won by Republican Paul LePage, who defeated second-place finisher Eliot Cutler, a Democrat in independent’s clothing, by less than 2 percentage points.
Near the end of that campaign, the Cutler organization sent out an e-mail telling voters that Cutler’s lawyers had advised that under current Maine law absentee voters who wished to change their votes could be given new ballots for that purpose.
“If you know anyone who has already voted and now wants to vote for Eliot, they should fill out the attached form and go to their town hall immediately,” Cutler’s campaign manager, Ted O’Meara, wrote in the e-mail.
According to Bangor Daily News reporter Kevin Miller’s newspaper report, O’Meara’s message appeared to be aimed mainly at liberals and moderates who had voted early for Democrat Libby Mitchell but who now — with Mitchell trailing substantially in late polling — might be willing to switch their vote to Cutler to prevent LePage from winning.
O’Meara’s eleventh-hour appeal reportedly didn’t result in many requests for new ballots, which speaks well for the high standards of last fall‘s absentee voters. But it did cause concern among municipal clerks and state elections division authorities as to what might happen should a similar situation arise in the future. That is the genesis of Nutting’s legislation, which has the support of town and city clerks, the Maine Municipal Association and the LePage administration and drew no opposition at a public hearing in Augusta on Wednesday.
“On Election Day, voters at the polls are not allowed to pull back their votes if they change their minds later in the day,’’ nor should absentee voters be allowed to do so, Nutting said at the hearing.
More than 130,000 absentee ballots were cast in the November election, roughly 50,000 of them by Democrats. In his concession speech, Cutler said he suspected that the popularity of early voting in Maine had been a factor in his loss because so many people had voted before his surge in the polls during the campaign’s final week.
Perhaps. But as an old County philosopher long since gone to his heavenly reward was fond of saying, “Looks like there are two maybes to that deal, my friend.” In either case — maybe so, or maybe not — it’s probably just as well that the ninth-inning do-over votes the Cutler campaign hoped to gain didn’t materialize. Had second-chance votes been the deciding factor in an election as tight as the 2010 gubernatorial race turned out to be, it is not difficult to imagine that the mother of all litigation might have been unleashed upon the state.
Useful as the concept of being allowed to vote a second time if you didn’t get it right the first time might be to some political campaign down the line, the Legislature seems likely to confine this sorry anachronism to the dustbin of history. May it rest there in peace alongside the cemetery vote said to be once popular in certain creative downstate precincts.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.