Mainers will have the privilege and the duty on Nov. 8 to protect the state’s long tradition of letting each of its citizens vote. By voting yes on Question 1 and reaffirming the right to Election Day voter registration, Mainers can follow this state’s tradition of almost 200 years of enlarging the right to vote.
When admission to the Union as a state in 1820 came with the bargain of admission of a slave state, Missouri, Mainers at first opposed the move. Only when the Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery in the remaining territory of the Louisiana Purchase did Mainers accept a less than perfect bargain, believing, as did the Founders, that slavery would slowly disappear.
When the price of eliminating slavery proved to be the Civil War 41 years later, Mainers, per capita, sent more men to fight and more men to die than any other Northern state.
At Gettysburg, the 20th Maine helped bring about what President Lincoln would later call “a new birth of freedom.” Central to that rebirth was the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote to all men, regardless of race. Congress passed the amendment and the Maine Legislature ratified it just 13 days later.
As the Union grew more perfect, Maine enthusiastically enlarged the right to vote. In 1919 it ratified the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote; nine long months passed before enough of the other states ratified the amendment to give it life.
In 1961 Maine became the ninth state to ratify the 23rd Amendment, granting the residents of the District of Columbia the right to vote for president.
In Southern states, obstacles were designed to make it difficult for African-Americans to vote. The most pernicious was the poll tax, premised on the notion that voting was a privilege that came at a high price, not a right that came with citizenship. In 1964, Maine ratified the 24th Amendment and soon thereafter the poll tax became unconstitutional nationwide.
In 1971, as thousands of Americans younger than 21 were fighting and dying in Vietnam, America realized that no one should be asked to make that sacrifice for a country that would not let him or her vote. Maine ratified the 26th Amendment just 17 days after Congress passed it.
But the circle was not complete. Thousands of Mainers who recently had moved within the state or to the state found that arcane voter registration requirements deprived them of the right to vote. While one could exercise other constitutional rights without preapproval, Maine still required that one register 30 days before one could vote.
In 1973 a Republican-controlled legislature unanimously voted for Election Day voter registration.
Now the employee working two jobs to support her family could vote and not pay the poll tax of time. For this is what advance registration is: It demands of the voter that she take an entirely separate day to preserve her right to vote, that she spend something more precious than money, her time in days crowded with many other demands, to preserve her right to vote at a later time.
The result of the Republican-controlled Legislature’s wisdom in 1973 is that Maine has generally had the highest or second highest voter turnout percentage in the nation. Maine has come closer than most other states to realizing Lincoln’s ideal: a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Now the Legislature has chosen to sail backwards through the winds of time, rashly voting to end Election Day voter registration. Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster has defended this reactionary move by claiming that college students who have come to Maine for four years or more, who have and will pay Maine taxes, should not be able to vote in Maine.
He is as ignorant of the law (The U.S. Supreme Court in Symm v. United States upheld the right of students to vote in their college town) as he is of the facts. (Not a single one of the students he turned in for what he called “voter fraud” voted anywhere but Maine.)
Not satisfied with being dead wrong once, he then claimed other college students had claimed residency in hotel rooms. Victims of a natural disaster, they had little choice as to where they lived. Charlie Webster never questioned President George H.W. Bush’s claiming a Houston hotel room as his voting residence for the 12-plus years he served in Washington. Does he think some people are more equal than others?
Voting yes on Question 1 will reaffirm Maine’s commitment to the two core values of our nation: liberty and equality. Maine must be true to its motto, “Dirigo.” It must lead the fight against restricting the right to vote.
Arthur Greif, a lawyer, lives in Bar Harbor and has a business office in Bangor.