AUGUSTA, Maine — The House of Representatives on Monday gave preliminary approval to a pair of bills that will change how and when Mainers vote.
The House voted 74-70 along party lines to approve LD 1376, a bill backed by Republican leadership and Secretary of State Charlie Summers that eliminates Maine’s 38-year-old, same-day voting registration and bans absentee voting two business days before Election Day.
The House also voted 75-69 to give preliminary approval to LD 199, a bill requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls.
Proponents of LD 1376 say the legislation 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 the absentee voting issue should be handled separately and without eliminating same-day registration, which they say will affect students, the elderly and the disabled.
Meanwhile, groups such as the Maine Civil Liberties Union believe LD 1376 is a misguided Republican attempt to gain an electoral advantage.
Summers has said the bill is designed to “protect the integrity of voting” by alleviating pressure on town clerks on Election Day. He said last week that the bill “has nothing to do with voter fraud,” an issue that has yielded only two prosecutions in Maine history.
During the House debate some Republicans acknowledged voter fraud hadn’t been an issue in Maine, but an uptick nationally meant the state wouldn’t be immune for long.
“The right to vote is too precious not to protect it as best we can,” said Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle.
Opponents, meanwhile, said the bill would disenfranchise voters.
Rep. Ben Chipman, I-Portland, said the decision was “indefensible.”
“This is not something I would want on my resume when running for re-election next year,” he said.
Republicans said the bill seeks to relieve stress on the voting system and town clerks and pre-empt potential mistakes during elections.
The MCLU has argued that Republicans mistakenly believe that same-day voter registration benefits Democrats’ voter mobilization efforts.
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.
Shenna Bellows, with the MCLU, said last week that same-day voter registration “favors the candidate with the most momentum and popularity, not any particular party. In 2008 that was Barack Obama. In 2010 it was Republicans and Paul LePage.”
Nearly 50,000 voters registered on Election Day in 2008.
Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Windham, said Monday that elderly voters would not be disenfranchised by the legislation. He noted that the majority of 2008 same-day registrants were first-time voters.
More than 68,000 Mainers have registered to vote on Election Day between 2008 and 2010. Supporters said they weren’t concerned that voter turnout will be affected, adding that people will respond to the new deadline.
Opponents of LD 1376 had fewer problems with the absentee voting portion of the bill.
The state’s 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.
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.
LD 1376 and LD 199 face additional votes in the Senate and House.