Lawmakers reject voter ID bill but authorize study of election system

Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers
Posted Feb. 03, 2012, at 6:28 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted to direct the Secretary of State to conduct a thorough study of Maine’s election system, a move that ends a controversial carryover bill that sought to require voter identification.

Two weeks ago, Secretary Charlie Summers sent an annual report to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on the state’s Central Voter Registration system in which he called his yearlong review of voter registration data “troubling.”

Summers said although most of the problems were related to human errors by municipal officials rather than intentional fraud, those errors contributed to inaccurate and unreliable state voter data.

The data “suggests that a substantial number of noncitizens [over 150] may have registered to vote, and approximately one-third of that number may have actually voted in elections over the past few years,” Summers wrote. “I have turned this information over to the Attorney General for further investigation and to pursue whatever action he deems appropriate.”

The secretary concluded that his review of the system was evidence enough to consider drastic changes to the system. Lawmakers decided to use the voter ID bill, LD 199, as the vehicle for directing Summers to conduct a study.

By amending LD 199, committee members replaced both the bill’s title and its entire text with a resolve that directs the Secretary of State to report back on the study and provide possible draft legislation by February 2013.

Friday’s vote was not unanimous, so there will be a divided report when it goes to the House and Senate, so there will likely be a floor debate on the bill. Some Democrats were not sure a study, much less an overhaul of Maine’s election system, is needed.

Rep. Benjamin Chipman, U-Portland, said he wasn’t sure why Friday’s vote was needed since the Secretary of State already has the authority to examine the state’s election system.

Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, said she thought it was important to pass a bill to ensure that a report comes back to the Legislature. Next January, there will be elections for constitutional officers, so there is no guarantee that currently Secretary of State Summers will keep his job, she said.

There was some minor discussion about whether to separate the voter ID piece and vote that out for a debate on the House and Senate floor.

Rep. Doug Damon, R-Bangor, indicated he wanted the discussion because he said his constituents support voter ID. Rep. Thomas Longstaff, D-Waterville, said the issue is much more divisive in his district.

After discussing that idea off microphone for about 10 minutes, Plowman made the motion to replace LD 199’s title and language and remove voter ID.

Voter ID was one of two controversial election reform bills that originated out of the 125th Legislature’s first session.

The Legislature passed a law last June to eliminate same-day voter registration, but it was overturned by voters in November after a coalition gathered enough signatures to force a people’s veto.

The voter ID bill passed in the House but failed in the Senate and ultimately was carried over to this session.

Voter ID bills have popped up in numerous states in recent years, particularly states with State Houses controlled by Republicans. Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin join the states to pass voter ID laws this year and voters in Mississippi endorsed a constitutional amendment to require that voters present government-issued identification at the polls.

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