DAVID FARMER

Even in an off-year election, Maine pays attention

Posted Nov. 02, 2011, at 3:41 p.m.

Off-year elections are strange animals.

And even among off-year elections, there’s a predictable hierarchy for participation and for the amount of attention that an election can garner.

Presidential election years earn the most attention. And in Maine, those elections also coincide with races for the entire state Legislature and at least two of four members of Congress. And some years, like 2012, we also get a U.S. Senate race thrown into the mix.

Then, in the even numbered years without a presidential election, Maine elects a governor.

For Maine, it’s the odd-numbered years, like this one, that are the real off-year elections.

This year, Maine voters will decide a people’s veto that is trying to restore same-day voter registration. A yes vote on Question 1 keeps same-day, or Election Day, registration. I’m working as the communications director on that campaign.

Voters will also decide two statewide questions seeking to approve racinos in Biddeford and in Washington County and a casino in Lewiston.

And they’ll be asked about a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds vote for redistricting.

There are also a number of local elections on the ballot, including the election of a new mayor in Portland and the approval of table games for Hollywood slots.

Because there is no marquee race — a clash between widely known statewide candidates, for example — turnout is expected to be lower than it is in presidential or gubernatorial elections.

But even so, Mainers appear to be engaged and paying attention to the race.

Critical insights, a Portland-based polling company, released research last week about Maine’s elections. While the company didn’t release results for Questions 2 or 3 about gambling, the results on Question 1 showed that 51 percent of Mainers support a yes vote, 43 support a no vote and only six percent are undecided.

On Question 4, opinions were more equally divided, with a large number of people undecided, which is not surprising since there has been no active campaign on the issue and little media attention.

Whether you agree with the poll or its accuracy in measuring opinions, it does indicate that, for the most part, voters are paying attention and engaged in politics and their government.

That isn’t the case everywhere, and points to Maine’s exceptionalism when it comes to elections.

In 2010, Maine ranked No. 1 for voter turnout and has a long tradition of voter participation. And our state’s town-meeting heritage lives on as strong as ever in some communities.

I grew up in Virginia, and the state’s elections are different.

First off, the governor is limited to one four-year term. The governor can’t be elected to two consecutive terms. Also, the elections for the governor — and the Legislature — are held in odd-numbered off-years such as this one.

Next week, Virginia will elect a new Legislature.

There’s a lot at stake. Republicans control the governor’s office and the House of Delegates, while Democrats maintain a slim edge in the state Senate.

The Republican governor is popular, and two former governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine, are running for the U.S. Senate next year.

Despite Virginia’s proximity to Washington, D.C., and the importance of the election, Virginians have been late to tune in and may not be paying much attention at all to the election. Similar inattention plagues New Jersey.

In a recent poll conducted by Christopher Newport University and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, more than 70 percent of voters said they were paying little or no attention to the November election. According to the survey, only about 28 percent of people said they care “quite a lot” or “some” about the election.

To be fair, Critical Insights didn’t test overall interest in the election in its poll, and while the Maine poll sought out “likely” voters, the Virginia poll talked to the broader category of “registered” voters.

But I suspect that Maine’s turnout numbers this year will be roughly a third of registered voters and in line with Virginia’s turnout, despite only four questions and no state offices on the ballot here.

Regardless of the issues or the personalities, Mainers take their elections seriously and they let their voices be heard. It’s something our state should be proud of. And something we shouldn’t take for granted.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He is currently working on the Yes on 1 campaign. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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