CONTRIBUTORS

‘Coerced’ voting is legal, but wrong

Posted Sept. 25, 2011, at 5:43 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 26, 2011, at 6:01 a.m.

Now that the referendum to bring back same-day voter registration is officially on the coming November ballot, I want to share an insider’s perspective on Maine’s voting system.

In February 2009, I was a newcomer to the political world. I was nominated and then ran as the Democratic candidate in a special election in District 89 that covers Farmington and Industry for the House seat vacated by Janet Mills who was appointed Attorney General. The process was short by normal election standards and only lasted four weeks, during which I often questioned my sanity for having embarked on a door-to-door campaign in the middle of our snowy winter.

Though I shook more hands in a month than most people do in a year, I happily never caught a cold. In fact, I found the experience of meeting people in so many different settings from so many different backgrounds to be inspiring.

Certainly, there were people who disliked me even before they met me simply because I was on the Democratic side of the political spectrum. But the vast majority I met were respectful and seemed to appreciate the fact that I was just a guy running as a candidate in a system of government that was based on the idea of one person with one vote being able to make a difference in who is elected.

However, in the final week of the campaign any hopefulness I had in our voting system was tattered and torn. I began to hear stories that suggested possible abuse of the absentee ballot system that I naively shrugged off as too bizarre to be true. That was until I began to speak with older voters here in rural Maine.

On several occasions, I was even informed that elderly voters had been told to vote for my Republican opponent by the person providing them, in the privacy of their own home, with an absentee ballot. One individual even contacted me directly to advise that their elderly parent felt coerced into voting against their wishes when forced to sign an absentee ballot in their own kitchen with the ballot handler hovering over them.

At that point, I had enough of the monkey business and sought advice from the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. Sad to say, I was told flatly that there was no law in Maine against such coercion and they could do nothing.

Going into the final day of the election that Feb. 3, I still had faith that many voters

continue to cherish their walk to the polls on the actual voting day to exercise their right to vote. I arrived at the polls in Farmington with coffee in hand waiting for the doors to open and was soon joined by my opponent. There we stood, greeting voters throughout the day, all the time whispering barbed remarks at one another in gentlemanly competition.

However, as the day went on, one figure kept appearing with absentee ballots. He seemed to smirk like Lewis Carroll’s Chesire Cat as he walked by me toward the ballot box where he literally stuffed them in. He repeated this throughout the day. Each time he arrived, he carried armloads of ballots, sometimes so many that some even slipped from his hands requiring him to retrieve them from the floor.

That day, I lost more than the election. I lost my trust and faith in the integrity of our voting system. The man I watched stuffing armfuls of absentee ballots into the ballot box was Charlie Webster, who leads the Maine Republican Party and is fighting to keep a new law introduced by his political party that suppresses Mainers’ rights to vote by eliminating same-day voter registration.

While there is nothing illegal in the coercion used to secure absentee ballots, it does not provide an open election process.

This is why I will exercise my right to vote on Election Day against any law that suppresses an individual’s right to vote. We should all have an equal opportunity to vote each Election Day.

Dennis Haszko holds law and engineering degrees and represents inventors at the U.S. Patent Office. He lives in Farmington.

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