Twice in recent years, Bangor has participated in early voting pilot programs. The success of these pilots and positive feedback from both voters and election officials emphasized the importance of increasing voter participation — an ever-important issue that is particularly relevant as our June 10 Election Day approaches.
Early voting allows a ballot to be cast in the days leading up to an election by the same process used on Election Day. This gives residents who face challenges getting to the polls an alternative option to exercise their right to vote.
This election season, however, voters statewide will not have the option to vote early — or even be asked to weigh in on the question of early voting. Democrats backed a bill this legislative session to send the question of offering the option of early voting statewide for final approval at the polls.
A secretary of state Elections Commission supported the measure, as did the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and municipal clerks around the state. Despite our efforts, Republican opposition blocked the measure from making it to the ballot for voters’ say.
The early voting pilot programs in 2007 and 2009 were heralded as successes by the Department of the Secretary of State, which oversees elections, and the Early Voting Study Group, which includes municipal clerks and staff of the secretary of state and attorney general’s office. In survey responses summarized in the 2009 Early Voting Report, participating municipal officials and residents who took part in early voting praised the process for its accessibility.
Their reasons were compelling. Voters reported it allowed them to vote quickly and provided flexibility when their work schedules might have otherwise prevented them from voting. Early voting provided increased access to the polls for residents with challenges such as mobility issues. In fact, residents who participated in early voting and were surveyed supported making the option available in future elections almost unanimously.
The flexibility offered by early voting is important for voters who work long hours, sometimes holding down multiple jobs, as well as older Mainers, disabled veterans and others who face obstacles in getting to the polls. For them, early voting can mean the difference between exercising their right to have a say in our democracy and missing the opportunity.
Early voting differs from Maine’s existing absentee voting process. Absentee voting can place a strain on municipal resources as it becomes more popular because absentee ballots are held by the clerk until Election Day, when they must be verified, opened and counted — all in addition to municipal officials’ other Election Day responsibilities.
On the other hand, early voting allows voters to cast their ballots themselves as they would on Election Day. This makes elections work more efficiently for both residents and polling officials, alleviating some of the pressure felt by municipal clerks as they process absentee ballots and oversee Election Day voting. It also strengthens the secret ballot. Instead of handing over a signed envelope containing the ballot to be opened by an official on Election Day, a voter places his or her ballot directly in the ballot box.
Adopting early voting statewide would mean amending Maine’s Constitution, which requires two-thirds support in the Legislature in order to be sent to Maine voters for final approval. Although this session’s bill, LD 156, to allow residents to choose whether they wanted early voting by placing it on the ballot had majority support in both the House and Senate, it fell short of the required two-thirds vote.
Passing the measure in the Legislature would have meant allowing the people of Maine to decide whether local communities should have the option of implementing early voting. The ultimate choice would have belonged to the municipalities. The measure would have allowed cities and towns to choose whether early voting was the right option for them.
As legislators, Maine voters have expressed trust in us to make sound, deliberate decisions. In this case, we should trust them to do the same. The Legislature should give residents the opportunity to decide on early voting at the ballot box.
Rep. John Schneck, a Democrat, is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives and represents part of Bangor. Schneck is a member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which reviews elections legislation.