AUGUSTA, Maine — Critics of the Legislature’s recent decision to end Election Day voter registration in Maine said Thursday a broad coalition is building to quickly collect the 57,000-plus signatures needed to put the issue in front of voters this November.
“We are organized, we are energized and we will be successful,” said Ben Dudley, executive director of Engage Maine, a coalition of progressive groups.
After heated debate that elevated partisan tensions in Augusta, the Legislature voted largely along party lines earlier this month to repeal Maine’s 38-year-old law allowing voters to register at the polls on Election Day.
Supporters argue the change is needed to reduce municipal clerks’ workload and to deter voter fraud. But critics say fraud is largely nonexistent in Maine and instead accuse Republicans of repealing the law on the assumption that it helps Democrats.
On Thursday, representatives from about a dozen organizations joined several of the individuals who filed paperwork to wage a people’s veto campaign to overturn the bill, LD 1376, that they say will disenfranchise thousands of Maine voters.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand why we would turn the clock back now,” said Robert Talbot, a Bangor resident who signed the petition filed earlier this week with the Secretary of State’s Office.
But supporters of the change said the new law doesn’t rob anyone of their voting rights. It merely gives clerks additional time to verify new registrants.
“Maine is now set to join 42 other states which understand that not being able to register to vote on Election Day is a very small inconvenience to maintain the integrity of every vote cast,” House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said in a statement. “This new law doesn’t disenfranchise anyone, because all eligible residents will still have 247 days out of the year to register.”
Opponents of the new law will have to work quickly if they want to get the issue on the November ballot.
They will need to gather 57,277 signatures from confirmed, registered voters within 90 days of the Legislature’s adjournment, which won’t happen until June 28 at the earliest. But the campaign would need to collect those signatures by Aug. 8 to qualify for this fall’s election.
Shenna Bellows with the Maine Civil Liberties Union said about 18 groups already have enlisted to help with the signature-gathering phase. Those groups range from the Maine League of Women Voters to the Maine Disability Rights Center and labor unions.
“This is just the beginning,” Bellows said. “These are the groups that have [joined] in the past two days.”
Gathering petition signatures takes both time and money because each signer has to be certified by their local municipal clerk. Thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of signatures are often tossed out, meaning campaigners need to gather many more than 57,000.
Asked whether the coalition planned to hire paid signature gatherers, Dudley said that has not been decided but he expects the petition drive to be composed mainly of volunteers.
Election Day registration has been a popular tool for voters of all political stripes in Maine in recent years. Nearly 60,000 Mainers registered on Election Day 2008. Among the 18,000 who took advantage of same-day registration last November, the bulk were unenrolled voters with a roughly equal number of Republicans and Democrats.
Charlie Webster, the chairman of the Maine Republican Party who has helped wage several people’s veto campaigns, questioned whether the groups will be able to collect the signatures in time for this November’s election. But Webster predicted Maine voters will support the new law regardless of when the election is held.
He also repeated earlier comments suggesting that Democrats purposely recruited out-of-state college students and bused in questionable voters to win elections.
“There is no way to check that the people who are voting are legitimate citizens of Maine,” Webster said.
Those comments prompted Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, to accuse Webster of “more fear-mongering” and making suggestions of fraud without offering any proof.