Editor’s Note: The Bangor Daily News is pleased to welcome Amy Fried and Matthew Gagnon to our editorial pages. A political science professor at the University of Maine, Ms. Fried is a well-known commentator on state and national issues. Her column will appear every other Wednesday. Matthew Gagnon, a former staffer for Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will write a column every Friday. A native of Hampden, Mr. Gagnon runs the popular Pine Tree Politics Blog. Washington Post columnists Charles Krauthammer and Dana Milbank will swap places, with Mr. Milbank now on Fridays and Mr. Krauthammer every Monday. What do you think of the additions? Let me know at email@example.com.
— Susan Young, Editorial Page Editor
Next election time, if you want to sound like a pundit, tell everyone that, when it comes to predicting who will win, “It depends on turnout.” Whatever the contest looks like, who wins depends on who actually turns out to vote.
In 1948, one reason pollsters ended up being so wrong is because a lot of voters simply didn’t show up. Thomas Dewey, a bland candidate, thus did not defeat Harry Truman.
Nearly sixty years later, George W. Bush won Ohio and retained the presidency amidst high turnout. In the Buckeye State, strategist Karl Rove developed an intensive effort with grassroots volunteers, advertisements and candidate visits — elements of the normal historical role of political parties that were executed extremely well. A referendum defining marriage was strategically timed to encourage high numbers of conservatives to vote.
But turnout is not just an outgrowth of mobilizing activities. Parties and candidates may also try to limit who votes. Over many decades of southern one-party politics, Democrats implemented many schemes to limit voting to whites. In Ohio in 2004, the efforts to bring voters to the polls were coupled with sinister practices, as Republican election officials put more voting machines in areas supported by their party and far fewer in urban, Democratic areas. Voters in Cleveland and university communities faced long lines and long waits, making it difficult or impossible for those who had to pick up their children or get to work to vote. And these largely Democratic voters faced a concerted effort to challenge their voting credentials.
Since the start of the year, there has been a national effort in Republican-controlled states to limit turnout. Florida’s new law has made it so difficult to register voters that their League of Women’s Voters says that they will no longer conduct voter registration drives and will challenge.
In Wisconsin, the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker ended same-day voter registration and put restrictive voter ID laws into place. People who want to vote must get the government-issued identification they need from the Department of Motor Vehicles. As The Associated Press reports, “The recently enacted state budget requires that DMV driver license and ID card services be offered in all 72 counties at least 20 hours a week.” More hours may sound good but now the state has announced plans to close DMV offices in Democratic areas while expanding hours in Republican-dominated locations.
Rather than bringing voters to the polls, these activities restrict citizens’ participation in democratic decision-making. These states work from a national playbook that strategically employs claims of widespread vote fraud, which turn out to be unsupported or negligible.
All this brings us to Maine and to the press conference of Republican state party chair Charlie Webster. Previously Mr. Webster voiced concerns about mysterious busloads of people improperly voting. Last week, Webster complained that “special interest groups” were “poll flooding,” mobilizing many voters in get-out-the-vote operations. And who were those groups, one reporter asked. They were the group MoveOn and the “Democrat party.” The Republican Party, Webster said, is not a special interest group because it represents “regular people.”
Webster pointed to about 200 students who pay out-of-state tuition but have voted in Maine. But rules about tuition are not the same as rules for voting. And since the list includes people who registered beforehand, it is a red herring when it comes to same-day voter registration, which the Republican-controlled Legislature ended this session.
More recently, Webster revealed that College Republicans at the University of Maine at Farmington signed out the school’s vans last election day and parked them, so Democrats could not use them to take people to the polls. This focus on students and not seasonal residents with drivers’ licenses suggests a concern with who votes.
For 38 years, many thousands of Maine people — including 50,000 in the last presidential election — have benefited from same-day registration. For turnout not only matters for who wins, but also strengthens the people’s ability to choose those who govern in their name.
Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ASFried and read her blog at www.pollways.com.