CONTRIBUTORS

Don’t go backward on voting rights

Posted Aug. 05, 2011, at 6:31 p.m.

In the earliest days of our country, voting rights were granted selectively. Only white men with land and wealth were allowed to participate in their government.

Women, minorities and the poor were left on the outside, uncounted and at the political mercy of the ruling elite.

But slowly — inch by painful inch — our country realized that voting and political participation are the lifeblood of democracy.

I’m old enough to remember the bad old days when states tried to impose restrictions on voting.

Many of those restrictions targeted people of color. Literacy tests and poll taxes were enacted as part of the Jim Crow laws in the South. Literacy tests were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Poll taxes were ruled unconstitutional in 1966 in the Supreme Court case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.

Since then, our country has taken deliberate steps to encourage people to vote and Maine has consistently been a leader in the effort.

In the early 1970s, I was working for Gov. Ken Curtis and then for the Maine Human Rights Commission. In 1973, Republicans controlled Maine’s Legislature, just as they do today.

Back then, it was Republicans who passed same-day or Election Day registration, which allows voters to register and vote on Election Day.

This important election reform has stood the test of time and proven to be an effective way to help eligible voters cast their ballot.

I cannot understand why we would turn the clock back now.

In 1972, Maine ranked 21st in the country in voting turnout. In 2008, we ranked third.

The only states who ranked higher were Minnesota and Wisconsin, and both of those states have same-day voter registration as well.

The national turnout rate during the 2008 election was only 61.7 percent, but among states with same-day voter registration, average turnout was 70.2 percent. All nine states with same-day voter registration ranked higher than the national average.

Same-day voting registration worked in 1973. And it has worked for more than 30 years since.

I am an eighth-generation Mainer. I served my country in the U.S. Army. I attended the University of Maine. And I have built my life in a state that has respected the sacred right of voting.

When legislation was passed this year that eliminated Election Day registration, I could not stand by as my state made a terrible mistake.

On the day Gov. Paul LePage signed the law eliminating same-day registration, I joined with five other Mainers to say “no.” We filed the paperwork to begin a people’s veto.

We’re part of a nonpartisan coalition that is determined to protect voting rights for all Mainers, regardless of their political party or affiliation. Thousands of volunteers are busy at work today collecting the more than 57,000 signatures necessary to place a people’s veto on the ballot.

They’re working hard, but they need our help.

With the passage of LD 1376, which eliminated same-day registration, we have a responsibility to take action to protect access to the ballot box.

This is serious work on a serious topic. If we are unsuccessful, thousands of Mainers — as many as 70,000 in the last two elections, for example — could be turned away on Election Day, unable to vote.

Their voices will be silenced for no good reason.

That’s wrong, and we can’t allow it to stand.

Bob Talbot was one of the original six citizens who began the people’s veto campaign to restore Election Day registration. He lives in Bangor.

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