ANALYSIS

Same-day registration buoys Democrats, but they may be reading too much into results

Matt Berk, of South Portland, holds a sign in support of Question 1, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011, outside of the polls at the East End School in Portland, Maine.
Joel Page | BDN
Matt Berk, of South Portland, holds a sign in support of Question 1, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011, outside of the polls at the East End School in Portland, Maine.
Posted Nov. 09, 2011, at 2:22 p.m.
Last modified Nov. 09, 2011, at 8 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant had high hopes Tuesday night after it became clear voters were going to pass Question 1 and keep Election Day registration in place.

“It feels good to get a win but this isn’t the last vote of 2011, it’s the first of 2012,” he said. “We need to take this momentum into next year.”

Of course, Grant is talking about the November 2012 elections, in which every Maine House and Senate seat is up for grabs. Last November, Republicans gained control of both chambers and the Blaine House in a historic political shift.

The Yes on 1 campaign was made up largely of Democratic-leaning groups, and with the final margin of Question 1 hovering around 20 percentage points, Grant and others believe it could be a harbinger of things to come.

Others are not convinced that Tuesday’s result was anything more than Mainers resisting change.

“I wasn’t surprised that [Question 1] won. There was more energy on the “yes” side; they had a clearer goal in mind,” said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington. “But I think the vote was less a show of support for the Maine Democratic Party than it was Mainers voting to keep something that they are comfortable with.”

Republicans hold a 20-14 edge in the Senate and a 78-72 advantage in the House. The margins are close enough that either or both could go back to the Democrats if certain things happen.

The 125th Legislature’s second session, which begins in January, is likely going to be framed largely around 2012 House and Senate campaigns and that could produce some knockdown drag-out fights on controversial issues.

Already Republicans are gearing up for a battle on the governor’s supplemental budget, tax reform and possibly on a pair of carry-over bills: one that seeks to change union laws and another that would requires voters to show valid identification on Election Day.

The bigger question posed by Melcher was: What does Tuesday’s result mean for Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster?

Webster was an ardent supporter of eliminating Election Day registration and tried to tie the practice to widespread voter fraud in Maine, even though an investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office revealed no fraud.

Melcher said he thinks Webster may have lost credibility with his own party during the campaign, particularly in the final days when the Maine GOP paid for ads in weekly newspapers that questioned EqualityMaine — a backer of gay and lesbian rights — for supporting Yes on 1.

“I can’t imagine this vote is helpful to his standing there, but I haven’t heard any prominent Republicans denounce him,” Melcher said.

Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting and Senate President Kevin Raye were behind LD 1376, the bill that eliminated Election Day voter registration.

“I thought it would be closer, but having been outspent by a close-knit coalition, they did their job well. They did better than we did,” Nutting said.

The speaker said he doesn’t think Webster did anything wrong and considered any calls for his resignation nothing more than political rhetoric.

“Republicans call for the removal of Democrats from time to time. They don’t listen to us much,” he said.

Webster wasn’t too concerned about his job.

“I think that in politics there are two ways of approaching things. You can be everybody’s friend and not be effective or you can fight,” he said Wednesday. “If people want to complain, I’ll be the lightning rod. I have thick skin.”

Webster said he thinks the Democrats were motivated to initiate a people’s veto on something this year. Early on, some threatened to go after LD 1333, the health insurance reform bill, but eventually settled on Election Day registration.

“This was never about same-day registration. This was about overturning a Republican law,” Webster said.

Nutting agreed with that assessment.

“We know that prior to them selecting a cause for a people’s veto that they had decided to do a people’s veto; I don’t think that’s a secret,” he said. “But they did it in a way that they thought would help them politically, frankly in the same way the repeal of tax reform the year before helped the Republicans.”

Still, Maine’s support of Election Day voter registration is part of a national trend Tuesday that saw a number of Republican-backed initiatives defeated. Among them were a measure in Ohio that would have weakened collective bargaining rights for unions and a bill in Mississippi that tried to significantly roll back abortion rights.

Finally, the results of Question 1 on Tuesday reaffirmed a growing trend in Maine — that the people’s veto is a powerful tool.

This is the fourth consecutive year Maine voters have overturned a law passed by lawmakers.

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.

From 2008 to 2010, it was Republicans overturning Democratic laws. This year, it was the opposite.

“It’s kind of an out-of-power thing to do right now,” Melcher said. “I think if it becomes any more common, it could be a problem, but it’s still relatively rare.”

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