AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate on Tuesday gave its approval to a measure that would trigger a statewide referendum on whether to allow towns and cities to offer their residents the chance to cast ballots officially in advance of Election Day.
The Senate voted 24-11 in favor of sending a ballot question to voters asking whether they favor amending the constitution to allow towns and cities to offer early voting. The vote came a day after the House voted 90-50 in support of the bill, LD 156. The measure will ultimately require two-thirds support in both chambers if the question is to reach Maine voters.
Currently, Maine residents who wish to vote early do so by completing absentee ballots, which are sealed in envelopes that the voter signs and which are held at municipal offices until Election Day, when poll workers place them in ballot boxes or voting machines.
An early voting process would allow those who vote before Election Day to place their ballots directly into a ballot box or voting machine when they complete their ballots rather than submit them to a municipal clerk.
The Senate voted on an amended version of LD 156, which started out as a bill that would require the Legislature to set up a statewide early voting system if voters supported the constitutional amendment. The amended version makes it optional for towns and cities to set up early voting.
Debate on the Senate floor Tuesday largely echoed debate in the House a day earlier. Supporters of the measure said early voting would expand access to voting and reduce an administrative burden on town offices.
“The current process of absentee voting is very labor-intensive and has proven to be a burden to local election officials,” said Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford.
Opponents worried that only the state’s larger towns and cities would be able to afford early voting systems, leading to uneven early ballot access across the state. Plus, a proliferation of early voting would accelerate the entire campaign cycle, said Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton.
“The issue for me is not about early voting,” he said. “It’s about early campaigning.”
The proposal for an early voting constitutional amendment comes as more Mainers are casting absentee ballots.
Maine switched to “no excuse” absentee balloting in 2000, which removed requirements that voters provide a reason when asking to vote as early as three months in advance by absentee ballot. Since then, the number of absentee ballots cast has grown more than threefold.
The number of absentee ballots issued in 2000 (76,672) more than doubled for the 2004 presidential election (166,226), according to the secretary of state’s office. In 2008, the number of absentee ballots issued statewide soared to 243,992.