AUGUSTA, Maine — For 38 years, Maine residents have been able to go to their polling place on Election Day, fill out a registration card and then vote.
With the passage of a bill during the 125th Legislature’s first session, that option was eliminated and replaced with a requirement that voters register at least two business days before an election.
Shortly after the bill’s passage, a broad coalition of progressive groups gathered enough signatures to initiate a people’s veto.
Now Maine voters get to decide whether to affirm the changes or keep in place the decades-long practice of allowing registration and voting on the same day.
Question 1 on the Nov. 8 statewide ballot reads: “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?”
Both sides insist the debate is nonpolitical but during debate over LD 1376 Republicans overwhelming supported eliminating Election Day voter registration while Democrats fought to keep it. When the bill passed in the House and Senate, the voting margins were narrow and largely along party lines.
“Anytime you do anything dealing with registration or voting requirements or conditions, it’s always partisan, even if no one wants to say it,” said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. “Parties exist to win elections and will consider any chance to improve those odds.”
So who benefits more from the outcome of Question 1?
“Eliminating same-day voter registration helps Republicans; that’s just the reality,” Brewer said.
The case for eliminating same-day voter registration
LD 1376 was among the triumphs claimed by the GOP in the recent legislative session, which was controlled by Republicans for the first time in decades.
The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Robert Nutting of Oakland and drafted largely by Secretary of State Charlie Summers, was passed as a way to improve the elections process at the local level.
Supporters said eliminating Election Day registration and moving back the deadline for absentee voting — another provision of LD 1376 — would ease the burden on municipal officials.
They also contended that LD 1376 would reduce voter fraud or the potential for voter fraud. In releasing the results of an investigation into alleged fraud by his office, Summers said Maine’s election system is vulnerable and eliminating same-day registration is a good step toward improving the process, even though his investigation did not uncover any fraud.
Chris Tyll, the newly named head of Secure Maine’s Ballot, a statewide coalition advocating a “no” vote on Question 1, said taking steps to secure Maine’s election process should be a no-brainer.
“If there is a potential for fraud, maybe we need to look at changing the system,” said Tyll, a North Yarmouth resident, unenrolled voter and 13-year U.S. Navy veteran who served in Iraq. “One case of fraud is too many. It’s a slap in the face to guys [overseas] who keep our country free.”
Supporters of the ban on Election Day registration also point to the fact that Maine is one of only eight states that allow the practice. If the practice was so important, Tyll argued, more states would adopt it.
The case for keeping same-day voter registration
Once LD 1376 passed, Democrats and progressive organizations wasted little time in forming a coalition to overturn the part of the bill that eliminated Election Day registration.
In about a month, the Protect Maine Votes coalition gathered tens of thousands of signatures to force a people’s veto.
For supporters of Election Day registration, the passage of LD 1376 represented a blatant attempt by Republicans to make it harder for residents to vote.
“Maine was the first state to allow same-day voter registration and it’s worked for 38 years,” said David Farmer, spokesman for the Yes on 1 campaign. “The other side has switched rationale for changing this law several times over the last several weeks but the bottom line is: There is no good reason to change what has worked.”
Farmer said the arguments that clerks are overburdened and that fraud is rampant have not been substantiated.
In the 2008 and 2010 November elections combined, 70,000 Mainers registered on Election Day. That number included nearly as many Republicans and Democrats but the biggest bloc was unenrolled voters.
The “yes” side said the people that will be hurt most by the elimination of Election Day registration are senior citizens and college students.
Supporters of keeping Election Day registration also have argued that the changes in Maine are part of a national playbook from high-profile conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council to suppress voters.
Politics and the impact of turnout
Brewer, UMaine’s political scientist, said the arguments made so far by both sides have been effective but in some cases not entirely accurate.
Supporters of the ban have mentioned easing the burden on municipal clerks, but Brewer said he has yet to hear any local official say Election Day registration is burdensome.
As for the fraud charges?
“Could it make fraud easier? Sure it could, but I haven’t seen evidence of that,” Brewer said.
The two sides have been presenting disparate information about how Election Day registration affects voter turnout. The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, which has been vocal in supporting the elimination of Election Day registration, has contended the practice is not a factor in voter turnout.
“Objective research clearly demonstrates the same-day registration increases turnout,” Brewer said.
So why don’t more states allow voters to register on Election Day?
“It’s always easier to defend and keep the status quo,” Brewer said.
Ironically, voter turnout in November could play a role in the fate of Question 1.
Brewer said in an off-year election with no gubernatorial or congressional candidates, turnout usually hovers around 20 to 30 percent.
“I think everyone is focused on the gambling questions,” he said, referring to ballot Questions 2 and 3 that ask voters to approve or reject casinos in Lewiston, Biddeford and Calais. “But I think if you wanted to repeal the law and reinstitute same-day registration, next year is probably going to be the better year.”
Die-hard voters who vote in off-year elections tend to lean conservative, Brewer said.
Farmer, however, predicted strong interest among the Yes on 1 coalition, which has swelled to 23 member organizations representing about 200,000 Mainers.
And because elimination of Election Day registration is on hold pending the outcome of the Nov. 8 vote, Mainers still can register on Election Day.