AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s Election Day voter registration law was born quietly with bipartisan support nearly four decades ago, with little debate and overshadowed by much bigger issues of the Watergate era.
That’s in contrast to that law’s demise in June, which was marked by shrill partisan debate that set the stage for next Tuesday’s referendum to restore what’s become known as “same-day” registration.
The 1973 session, which turned out to be one of the longest at that time, featured high-profile issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, property tax relief, abortion rights, reporters’ right to protect sources and even health insurance reform. Same-day registration surfaced silently in the background as part of a routine revamping of the state’s election laws.
Debate on the House floor was dry and tame with no hint of partisan differences in the Republican-controlled Legislature, the legislative record shows. The focus was on arcane technicalities rather than the merits of the policy.
A leading supporter was Rep. Rodney Ross Jr., R-Bath, who chaired the Election Laws Committee as it revised the voting law. In brief remarks in the House on April 5, 1973, Ross made reference to “the Omnibus bill allowing persons to register on election day.” He asked representatives to go along with his motion to make a technical change making clear that it applied to all elections, not just special elections.
Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake, who was House Democratic leader then and continues to serve in the House, remembers the bill passing without fanfare and with minimal discussion.
“It was election law reform,” Martin said. “It was sponsored by Republicans and supported by Republicans and Democrats.”
His remarks on the floor at the time carry the same message that’s being heard by one side in the debate of recent weeks.
“I personally happen to believe that if we have an opportunity to give some people the right to vote, there is no reason why we can’t,” Martin said in 1973.
The same-day registration law underwent some quiet tweaking in 1985, but has remained basically intact since it was first signed into law on May 25, 1973, by Democratic Gov. Kenneth Curtis.
The law was thrust aside in June when the Legislature, controlled by Republicans for the first time since the 1970s, enacted a law requiring voters to register at least two business days before an election.
The law does permit “provisional voting” by people who claim they are registered, but whose names don’t appear on voting lists. Their ballots are counted only after their eligibility is confirmed.
Republicans argued that the same-day system has left Maine elections open to abuse and fraud. Democrats said taking it away deprives thousands of an opportunity to vote and discourages voter participation.
Same-day supporters’ successful petition drive under the people’s veto provision of the state Constitution forced Tuesday’s vote on whether to repeal the new two-day law. Repeal would reinstate same-day registration.