October 23, 2018
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There’s a simple way Maine could increase access to voting

Micky Bedell | BDN
Micky Bedell | BDN
Early voting volunteer Mary Richard (right) grins at an incoming voter as her cohorts Donna Leland (center) and Connie Gray wave signs reading "Next" at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, Nov. 2, 2016. "It makes people smile," Richard said of the signs, which the ladies volunteering would wave at anyone coming through the doors to vote.

Across the country, new laws have passed that have made it more difficult to cast a ballot.

There are laws requiring voters to produce a photo ID before voting. In Kansas and Tennessee, such requirements led to a statistically significant decline in voter turnout between 2008, when neither state had an ID requirement, and 2012, when both states did, an analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found.

In North Carolina, lawmakers in 2013 introduced ID requirements, limited the types of IDs voters could show to cast ballots and reduced the number of days before the election during which voters could cast early ballots. A federal appeals court last year struck down that law after finding that the law’s provisions “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” making it more difficult for them to vote. In the runup to the 2016 election, early voting by African-American voters was up in a number of southern states but down in North Carolina.

Maine consistently posts some of the highest voter turnout levels in the nation. Not coincidentally, the state generally has laws that don’t interfere with residents’ right to vote. Lawmakers have resisted adopting a photo ID requirement, and residents can register to vote on Election Day.

But Maine lawmakers went through a phase of restricting ballot access. In 2011, a Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill to end same-day voter registration, a practice that has been in effect in Maine since 1973. As part of the same law change, lawmakers targeted absentee voting — a practice that had been growing in popularity as a convenient way to cast a ballot: They effectively barred voters from requesting absentee ballots in the four days before an election.

Maine voters rolled back the ban on same-day voter registration in November 2011 through a people’s veto of the recently passed law change. But the absentee voting restrictions of the 2011 law remain in effect, limiting Maine voters’ ability to cast a ballot in the few days before an election.

Currently, under Maine law, a voter can’t request an absentee ballot within three business days of the election, a change from the less restrictive prior law. With an election on a Tuesday, that means a voter must file his or her absentee ballot request — barring special circumstances outlined in the law — before the preceding Friday.

While Maine lawmakers in 2011 didn’t target voters’ ability to cast a ballot early to the same extent as their counterparts in North Carolina did two years later, the limitations on casting a ballot in the four days before Election Day are a part of Maine’s legacy of limiting voter access that should change.

Before the 2011 law change, more and more Maine voters had been voting early via absentee ballot, often in the presence of the town clerk at the town office or through special absentee voting arrangements designed to make it as easy as possible for voters to use the absentee option. In 2000, 12 percent of voters voted absentee; in 2008, the figure grew to 32 percent.

Now, that arrangement isn’t available on the Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday before an election. In 2012, the first major election following the absentee voting restrictions, the number of absentee ballots requested fell from 2008 levels. In 2016, absentee voting still hadn’t recovered to 2008 levels.

Lawmakers everywhere should be doing whatever they can to make it as easy as possible to vote. Maine made a change in the opposite direction in 2011, and it should be fully corrected.

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