AUGUSTA, Maine — Secretary of State Charlie Summers and Republican leaders are supporting a bill that would eliminate Maine’s 38-year-old same-day voting registration and ban absentee voting two business days before Election Day.
Proponents say the bill is designed to ease the workload of town clerks overwhelmed by an increasing number of voters who cast absentee ballots and who wait until the election to register.
But critics counter that those voters often are students, the elderly or disabled. Groups such as the Maine Civil Liberties Union believe LD 1376 is an attempt by Republicans to gain an electoral advantage.
Summers said the bill is designed to “protect the integrity of voting” by alleviating pressure on town clerks on Election Day. He said the bill “has nothing to do with voter fraud,” an issue that has yielded only two prosecutions in Maine history.
Summers said technological advances allowed “interest groups of all stripes to drive people to the polls.”
“That’s a good thing,” Summers said. “But because they’re doing that in such large numbers, the clerks … are working from a 1973 elections model and they’re getting 2011 technology dropped on top of them.”
He added that the stress could result in mistakes being made.
Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, and other Democrats say the bill addresses a problem that doesn’t exist. Carey believes the proposal is designed to curb Democrats’ same-day voter mobilization, efforts that he thinks Republicans emulated and used to their advantage in 2010.
“If it wasn’t for same-day registration, Paul LePage probably wouldn’t be governor,” Carey said.
More than 18,000 Mainers registered on Election Day in 2010, a day that saw LePage narrowly win a five-way race and give Republicans control of the Legislature.
Republicans aren’t convinced that same-day registration played a role in their November sweep. However, Shenna Bellows, with the MCLU, thinks it was as significant as the 50,000 Mainers who registered in 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidency.
“Same-day voter registration likely favors the candidate with the most momentum and popularity, not any particular party,” Bellows said. “In 2008 that was Barack Obama. In 2010 it was Republicans and Paul LePage.”
Summers said LD 1376 has nothing to do with gaining an electoral advantage.
“This is designed to relieve stresses on the system,” he said. “People can try to assign falsehoods and nefarious reasons behind it, but that’s not what this is about.”
More than 68,000 Mainers have registered to vote on Election Day, but Summers isn’t concerned that voter turnout will be affected. He said voters will respond to the deadline.
Summers said he’s focused on making it easier for town clerks to administer elections. Increases in no-reason absentee voting appear to have made that process more difficult.
The no-reason absentee policy was implemented in 2000. Since then, absentee voting increased 12 percent in 2002, 18 percent in 2006 and 25 percent in 2010 in gubernatorial elections.
The increase has been more significant in presidential elections.
Last year, the city of Bangor reported that 60 percent of all ballots cast were absentee.
Lewiston City Clerk Kathleen Montejo said the absentee spike has created more work for her staff during the days leading up to the election. She said some absentee voters who cast ballots earlier sometimes wait in longer lines than they do on Election Day.
The absentee issue prompted the Maine Town & City Clerks’ Association to endorse LD 1376. However, during the bill’s public hearing, the organization said it was concerned that eliminating same-day registration would disenfranchise voters.
During the hearing, Bangor City Clerk Patti Dubois said she’d rather keep same-day registration while imposing the two business-day ban on absentee voting.
Summers said focusing the bill on the absentee voting provision would “only solve half the issue.”
He also isn’t convinced that ending same-day registration would hurt seniors and students, as opponents contend.
“If it affects every single person in the state the same, I fail to see how it makes it more difficult to vote,” Summer said.
The AARP testified against the bill, saying it could prevent some seniors from voting because it would require them to get to town hall twice, rather than once.
In addition to same-day registration and absentee voting, LD 1376 changes the deadline that registrations can be submitted by third-party organizations that mobilize voters.
The proposal, along with another bill requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls, resembles legislation currently before or recently passed by other Republican-controlled legislatures this year.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently signed legislation that repeals a 40-year-old law that allows voters to change their addresses and names at the polls on Election Day. The new bill requires voters who make those changes to cast a provisional ballot, which opponents say may not be counted. It, like the Maine bill, also tightens third-party registration rules.
Ohio and Pennsylvania are considering bills to tighten voter rules, while Texas recently enacted a voter ID bill.
The Republican-controlled Montana Legislature in April also approved a bill that ended that state’s same-day voter registration. GOP lawmakers said the system had the potential for voter fraud.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the first reading of LD 1376 this week.