MATTHEW GAGNON

Being right isn’t enough

Posted Nov. 10, 2011, at 4:57 p.m.

Let this be a lesson for Maine Republicans: Authority is a chair, and it needs legs to stand on. Maine Republicans are new to having any kind of real authority, and choosing the repeal of same-day voter registration was a lousy leg to put under your brand new chair.

To be clear, I supported the repeal of same-day registration. I did so because I thought it was a positive policy change that made sense. Pretty simple.

My support for the change was not because I believed in widespread voter fraud by people registering on Election Day, or a secret gay conspiracy to take over Maine (seriously?) I thought requiring people to register a couple days prior to the election — especially since nearly every state in the union does it that way — just made logical sense.

But making this one of the major policy initiatives to hang your hat on? That was stupid. Trying to come up with fake and obviously flawed reasons to support the policy? Even more stupid. Mainers have a habit of seeing right through that kind of garbage.

Let’s start with the obvious: This wasn’t about voter fraud. If we were truly worried about fraud, then a far better place to start would have been passing a bill that required verification of the identification of a person voting.

That would address a much more obvious potential window for fraud, and the rationale for such a law would make a lot more honest sense to Maine voters if the law was challenged. The only real problem with such a law would be the need to ensure that the poor would have access to the polls without having to pay for a license or photo ID. That was a relatively easy problem to get over. If fraud is what you are worried about, than repealing same-day registration was a bad target.

Vociferously citing widespread fraud as a major reason to support same-day repeal without having any solid evidence of that fraud was an amateur mistake. Calling for an investigation to prove fraud without having any idea what those results would show was an even bigger mistake. Clinging to that nakedly false rationale when that investigation turned up nothing was an even bigger mistake.

Turning toward gay-baiting at the end was grotesque and made me phenomenally embarrassed to be associated with those opposing the veto.

Repealing same-day registration was never about fraud to begin with. It was about being annoyed by truckloads of unengaged voters being picked up by Democrats in vans and driven to the polls. Saying otherwise always sounded like nonsense to anyone who pays attention. Nonsense to the tune of 60 percent of Mainers.

Maine Republicans were right to be annoyed by that practice. Voting shouldn’t be some kind of drive-by, thoughtless, last minute, superficial act. It shouldn’t be some kind of contest for what political party can organize itself better and bus the most people to the polls. Voting is a special right that should be treated with more respect.

People should want to vote and take it seriously. Registering a couple days ahead of time is not some kind of Draconian, unreasonable hardship. Rather, it is how most states do it, and you don’t hear about mass waves of people turned away at the polls in the other 40-plus states who do it that way.

But being right about the policy doesn’t mean you can try to sell the Maine people an empty bag and tell them it is full of potatoes. Without obviously legitimate arguments, voters aren’t particularly fond of supporting you. The well-meaning lawmakers who passed the repeal were ill-served by those who were charged with defending that repeal.

Maybe sometimes it is better to pass a law you know is right, stand on principle and lose. But if you are going to do that, at least go down with dignity and honor rather than with a convoluted batch of hollow rhetoric.

After a very good legislative session and some excellent changes made for Maine, the new Republican majority has its first major black eye. I hope it learns from how badly mismanaged this was and never makes these mistakes again. It is the only hope to keep their chair of authority standing.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

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