Placing new obstacles between voters and the ballot box will not protect the integrity of an election system in which Mainers can take pride.
Requiring voters to produce photo identification at the polls would waste resources and stifle participatory democracy in the guise of solving a problem that doesn’t exist, as more than a dozen speakers suggested Aug. 23 during the first in a series of public forums hosted by a five-member commission appointed in May to explore ways to improve the state’s election system.
Legitimate voter turnout in the Pine Tree State consistently ranks at or near the top nationally, and recent research into alleged voter fraud in Maine and nationally reveals remarkably few irregularities.
The data from both sides in the debate on whether to tighten student residency rules or to require photo identification at polling places — including a 2011 study ordered by Secretary of State Charlie Summers — provide ample evidence to show that Maine’s municipal poll workers handle elections efficiently, reliably and with great precision. They treat seriously the public trust invested in them and protect it diligently.
Adding new polling place mandates such as the government-issued photo identification laws adopted by some states would unnecessarily burden election clerks and complicate a voting process that should be easy and direct.
More important, requiring photo identification or forcing poll workers to more aggressively challenge voters to meet legal residency definitions would disproportionately harm segments of the population already threatened with disenfranchisement.
Studies by the Brennan Center for Justice show that as many as 11 percent of eligible voters don’t possess government-issued photo ID cards — and face major barriers to acquiring them. For more than one in 10 Americans, showing a photo ID isn’t as simple as reaching into a wallet and pulling out a license.
As older Mainers, women whose names changed as a result of marriage or divorce, people with disabilities, people of color, low-income voters or homeless shelter guests eloquently told the commission on Aug. 23, they aren’t new voters. In many cases, they’re people who’ve voted for decades but who no longer possess valid driver’s licenses or who never had need of a passport. The cost of procuring birth certificates or other documents the government requires before issuing a photo ID poses a hardship. In essence, it indirectly charges a fee for voting.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People describes casting a ballot as “the nation’s great equalizer because it is one of the few instances in which our voice, opinions, and the legacy we seek to leave future generations, readily crosses the expansive divide that is race and class in this country.”
Beyond affirming that fundamental principle of what Thomas Jefferson in 1801 described as “the elective franchise” and “the only legitimate foundation of any government,” promoting full access to the polls has a practical application.
“To be able to vote keeps you connected to your community,” said Thomas Ptacek of Homeless Voices for Justice.
Polling places in Maine must remain accessible, and requiring a photo ID to vote puts that accessibility at risk. More people should be exercising their right to vote, not fewer.