Mainers likely to have say in Election Day voter registration

Posted Aug. 08, 2011, at 3:09 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 08, 2011, at 5:51 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A broad coalition of advocacy groups and volunteers has gathered more than 68,000 signatures in an effort to allow Maine voters to affirm or overturn a recently passed law that bans Election Day voter registration.

Those signatures, well above the 57,277 needed to ensure a people’s veto, were delivered to the Secretary of State’s Office on Monday afternoon, one day before the deadline and exactly one month after the effort began.

As long as enough of the gathered signatures are certified by the Secretary of State, Mainers will get to weigh in this November on the following question: “Do you want to reject the section of Chapter 399 of the Public Laws of 2011 that requires new voters to register to vote at least two business days prior to an election?”

Members of Protect Maine Votes, the coalition of 18 groups and agencies and more than 1,000 volunteers, said they were buoyed by the response of residents from across the state.

“We have received an incredible outpouring of support from volunteers and voters in Maine,” said Mark Gray, the campaign manager for the people’s veto effort. “It’s clear from the enthusiasm and speed with which we have collected signatures that Mainers understand that voting is a fundamental right that must be protected.”

The 125th Legislature passed a law in June largely along party lines that ended Maine’s 38-year practice of allowing voters to register on Election Day. Republicans who backed the legislation said it was designed to relieve the pressure on municipal election officials but House and Senate Democrats argued that it amounted to voter suppression.

In early July, Protect Maine Votes launched its campaign to gather the 57,277 signatures to force a statewide vote.

Ben Chin, the field director for the campaign and the political engagement director for the Maine People’s Alliance, called the effort unprecedented.

“More than a thousand Mainers, representing every political party and a broad coalition of groups, came together,” he said. “The level of support and energy has been inspiring.”

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, who sponsored the initial legislation banning same-day voter registration, said the people’s veto is a part of the democratic process.

“The extreme left-wing groups and individuals behind this signature gathering effort have every right to try to pursue it,” he said Monday. “At this point, it’s too early to tell whether they have enough valid signatures to get the question on the ballot. If they do, I’m confident that Maine voters will reject it.”

Nutting said the new law allows voters to register at least two business days before an election, and he pointed out that many states require registration several weeks before Election Day.

“This doesn’t sound like voter suppression or disenfranchisement to me,” he said.

Opponents of the law, however, argue that there should be fewer — not more — impediments to voting. In the 2008 and 2010 November elections combined, nearly 70,000 Mainers registered to vote on Election Day, including many in 2010 who propelled Republican Gov. Paul LePage to victory.

“Eliminating Election Day registration only makes it harder for Maine people to vote,” said Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, the lead House Democrat on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. “It makes it harder for people who are older, or disabled, or who move often, or those who have trouble getting to the town hall to register a change of address.”

The signatures turned in Monday already have been certified as valid by town clerks. Secretary of State Charlie Summers now has 30 days to review the petitions and make a decision on whether the people’s veto will be placed on the November ballot.

In recent weeks, supporters of the people’s veto effort have criticized Summers and Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster for attempting to link Election Day registration to voter fraud.

Both Webster and Summers held press conferences recently to discuss allegations of voter fraud in an effort, critics believe, to distract the public from the signature-gathering effort.

Webster has alleged that more than 200 out-of-state college students should be investigated for possible voter fraud in the 2010 election.

Summers’ office, with the State Attorney General’s Office, has rolled Webster’s claims into a broader investigation of voter fraud stemming from a conversation he had with a state employee.

Former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, said Summers jumped the gun on that probe and said t hat employees’ concerns were addressed years ago.

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