AUGUSTA, Maine — A five-member panel charged with reviewing Maine’s election system and suggesting improvements is unlikely to recommend that the state require voters present identification — photo or otherwise — at the polls.
The Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine met Friday to begin drafting its report with recommendations for strengthening Maine’s election system. A majority of the commission’s members said they opposed instituting a voter identification system in Maine.
“It really comes down to the fact that there isn’t any need in Maine at this time, and there isn’t the will for it,” said former U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby, one of the commission members.
The commission started work on its report Friday after holding public hearings around the state during the summer and fall where members solicited comments on all aspects of Maine’s election system. Those who attended the hearings were largely opposed to a voter identification requirement in Maine.
Municipal clerks who spoke at public hearings said such a requirement could slow down the voting process and add to lines that are already long on Election Day, noted John Atwood, a former Maine Superior Court judge who is chairman of the elections commission. In small towns where election officials are likely to know voters, IDs are unnecessary, commission members heard at the public sessions. And in some areas of Maine, Atwood said, residents have limited access to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and other offices that issue IDs.
Atwood also cited research from the Brennan Center for Justice provided to the commission that found that 11 percent of eligible voters lack government-issued photo IDs.
For a voter ID system to work and not disenfranchise voters, he said, the system would need a number of exemptions. The state also would need to spend scarce resources to develop a voter ID that could be provided to voters at no charge, Atwood said.
“In the end, I’d be against voter ID,” he said. “The cons far outweigh the pros.”
Commission member Tim Wilson, an adviser and director with Maine’s Seeds of Peace program, agreed that a voter identification system is unnecessary today, but raised the possibility of revisiting the issue in the future.
“It’s going to be the law of the land eventually, but in this state right now? No,” Wilson said. “I don’t want the burden on the towns. They’re already overburdened.”
Of the four commission members who participated in Friday morning’s meeting, one member, former Bangor Mayor Larry Willey, said he supported a voter ID requirement, noting that Maine’s lack of any requirement puts it at odds with 30 states that have enacted some form of voter ID requirement. Though no polling has been done in Maine, Willey said he suspects support for voter identification is strong based on polling that has been done on the issue elsewhere.
Willey said he would support some exemptions and special measures to make sure a voter identification requirement doesn’t become a barrier to voting.
But “the reason for voter ID laws is to ensure the identity [of the voter] like any other secure transaction in society,” he said. “Really everyone has some form of identification, either photo or nonphoto.”
The Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine formed in May after lawmakers directed Secretary of State Charlie Summers to order a thorough study of the state’s election system. That vote occurred after members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee decided against moving forward with legislation that proposed a voter identification requirement.
The commission’s report will include the panel’s findings and recommendations for legislation to address Maine’s election system. The secretary of state — Democrat Matt Dunlap will be sworn into the office next month — is expected to submit the report to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee by Feb. 1, 2013.
In addition to voter identification, the commission report is likely to address voter registration and a range of other election-related issues.