GUEST COLUMN

Bill to end same-day voter registration a solution in search of a problem

Posted May 27, 2011, at 11:08 p.m.

Voting is a patriotic act, fundamental to our democracy. Now, some want to make it harder for the average Mainer to exercise that fundamental, constitutional right to vote.

In 1973 the last Republican-controlled Legislature unanimously passed “same-day registration” allowing voters to register and cast their votes in a one-step process on Election Day. Same-day registration has been an overwhelming success.

Since it passed, Maine has risen from 21st in the country in voter participation to 3rd in the country. A higher percentage of Maine voters participate in our local and national elections than the voters of any other state except Minnesota and Wisconsin, both of which also have same-day voter registration. In fact, same-day registration is the single-most important thing states can do to improve voter participation by 5 to 15 percent.

It makes no sense then that the new Secretary of State Charles Summers and Speaker of the House Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, hope to do away with same-day voter registration via LD 1376. The bill is scheduled for a vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

First, they argued that this was a necessary measure to prevent voter fraud. But there haven’t been any problems with the system. Same-day registration does not lead to voter fraud. There have been only two prosecutions for voter fraud in Maine history, and only one of those involved a voter using same-day registration to vote twice in the same election.That’s one case in over 30 years.

Then, they argued that eliminating same-day voter registration would make it easier for the clerks to administer elections. But the clerks testified at the public hearing on this bill that they have no problem with same-day voter registration. Indeed, clerks have consistently supported same-day voter registration.

If the clerks aren’t pushing to eliminate same-day voter registration, and there’s no voter fraud, then what’s the problem? The question becomes whether this bill is a partisan vehicle in search of some sort of electoral advantage.

Experts testified before the Legislature that this bill will keep some senior citizens and students from voting. The AARP is concerned that seniors with limited access to transportation and mobility will be affected by turning voting from a one-step process into a two-step process. The League of Young Voters testified that students commonly register to vote in large numbers for the first time on Election Day.

Anyone who moves frequently — young people especially — will be harmed by eliminating same day voter registration. Anyone who has difficulty with mobility and transportation — seniors and people with disabilities — will find a two-step voting process of registering ahead of time more difficult to complete.

Any attempt to seek electoral advantage by making it harder for senior citizens or young people to vote is wrong and short-sighted. The truth is, same-day voter registration likely favors the candidate with the most momentum and popularity. In 2008, when almost 50,000 Mainers registered to vote on Election Day, same-day voter registration likely helped President Barack Obama win his election. But in 2010, when 18,364 Mainers registered to vote on Election Day, Gov. Paul LePage and the Republicans swept the field. Same-day voter registration challenges incumbents and the status quo, regardless of party.

About 68,000 Mainers have registered to vote on Election Day in the past two elections. LD 1376 could deny those Mainers their constitutional right to vote.

On Memorial Day, we celebrate the brave men and women who sacrificed their safety and their lives for our fundamental freedoms, including the right to vote. We honor their memory by doing our part at home to preserve those freedoms. The Legislature should do the patriotic thing and reject LD 1376.

Shenna Bellows is executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

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