PORTLAND, Maine — By a relatively wide margin, Mainers on Tuesday overturned a recently passed law that would have ended a 38-year-old practice of allowing voters to register on Election Day.
Question 1 asked: “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?”
With more than three-quarters of the state’s precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, the yes side was leading 60 percent to 40 percent and had declared victory. The yes side was prevailing in every county, with especially lopsided results in Portland and Bangor.
Dozens of Yes on 1 volunteers gathered at Bayside Bowl in Portland and watched the results trickle in on laptops. The mood was festive, even shortly after the polls closed, and only got better as the night went on.
Among those gathered, including Democratic party officials, labor leaders and progressive activists, everyone agreed that it was nice to get a win.
“We felt good coming in and we knew we had run a better campaign,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said. “It feels good to get a win but this isn’t the last vote of 2011, it’s the first of 2012. We need to take this momentum into next year.”
“Maine voters sent a clear message: No one will be denied a right to vote,” said Shenna Bellows, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Voters in small towns and big cities voted to protect our constitutional right.”
Lance Dutson, director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which has been involved with the No on 1 campaign, said he expected a closer vote but conceded the race shortly before 10 p.m.
“I’m pleased at the discussion we helped to initiate around making our elections more secure,” he said.
Anna Cummings, a 19-year-old student at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, was among those who voted yes on Question 1.
“I know some people don’t want college students to vote because they say we don’t live here,” said Cummings, a native of Washington, D.C. “But I’m living here for four years while I’m in college. I think that gives me the right to vote here.”
Frank Malfy of Portland said he voted no because he doesn’t think people need to register on Election Day.
“I think if you have basically a whole year to register, that should be enough time,” he said.
In June, the Republican-controlled House and Senate voted largely along party lines to pass LD 1376, An Act To Preserve the Integrity of the Voter Registration and Election Process.
As passed, that bill eliminated the 38-year-old practice of Election Day registration by requiring voters to register two business days before an election. LD 1376 also bans absentee voting two days before Election Day, but that change is not part of the people’s veto.
Supporters of LD 1376 said the aim was to improve the voting process and alleviate stress on municipal election clerks, although some, including Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster, said it would reduce voter fraud.
Opponents argued that the GOP-backed law was designed to make it harder for Mainers to vote and they rejected the notion that Maine’s elections are at risk for fraud.
On the same day Gov. Paul LePage signed LD 1376 in law, a coalition of progressive groups banded together to launch a people’s veto effort. The Protect Maine Votes coalition gathered more than 70,000 valid signatures in less than a month to put a question on the ballot.
During the signature-gathering process and after the petitions were secured, the debate over Election Day registration took some interesting turns.
In July, Webster produced a list of 206 names of college students who he said should be investigated for voter fraud. He tied their votes to Election Day registration even though there was no direct connection.
About two months later, Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers announced the findings of that investigation. Although he found no evidence of fraud, Summers said his probe revealed that Maine’s elections system was “fragile and vulnerable” to errors.
Election results from Farmington, Webster’s hometown, show Question 1 prevailing there with 57 percent of the vote.
This is the fourth consecutive year in which Maine voters have overturned a law passed by the Legislature.
From 2008-2010, when Democrats controlled the Legislature and the Blaine House, Republicans used the people’s veto process to overturn laws.
In 2008, voters rejected a law that would have levied new taxes on beer, wine and soda to help fund the state-subsidized Dirigo Health insurance program.
In 2009, voters overturned a law that would have allowed same-sex couples the right to get married, an issue that looks like it could return in 2012 in the form of a citizens’ initiative.
And last June, 60 percent of voters overturned a tax reform package that would have lowered income taxes while expanding certain sales taxes and increasing the meals and lodging tax.
To see full election results broken down by town, visit maineelections.bangordailynews.com.