The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s voter registration and absentee ballot requirements could make older voters unable to cast a ballot without risking their health amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a lawsuit from advocacy groups against the state.
The suit, filed Wednesday in Kennebec County Superior Court by the Alliance for Retired Americans and Vote.org, along with two Mainers, asks a judge to issue an injunction that would allow voters to electronically submit a voter registration card and require the state to accept absentee ballots postmarked on Election Day, among other changes.
City and town clerks, as well as state officials, have been encouraging Mainers to vote absentee in the July 14 primary due to concerns about potential spread of the virus at crowded polling places. As of Tuesday, nearly 118,000 voters had requested absentee ballots, according to state data, though that still represents less than half of expected turnout.
Over the past few elections, more than 70 percent of voters have usually voted at the polls on Election Day. Ahead of the July primary, the state eliminated the deadline for voters to request an absentee ballot, but election procedures are otherwise mostly unchanged.
The lawsuit argues that because many Maine voters are likely unfamiliar with the absentee ballot process and virus restrictions that might make it difficult for residents to leave homes to print documents or buy stamps, the current registration and absentee requirements place an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote.
“Even if in-person options for registration and voting remain technically available in upcoming elections, the risk of in-person registration and voting will remain too high for a considerable proportion of Mainers, who should not be forced to choose between participating in our democracy and protecting the health and welfare of themselves, their families, and their communities,” the suit says.
Maine is one of a handful of states that does not currently allow residents to register to vote online, instead requiring voters to register in-person or by printing or requesting a card and then mailing it to their town office, which the lawsuit describes as a “burdensome process.”
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has said legislative action would be required to allow online voter registration, but the lawsuit argues that the current statute, which requires voter registration cards to include the “signature of applicant,” does not say that the signature must be printed with the ink of a pen, so online registration should be permitted.
The lawsuit also argues that postage required to mail an absentee ballot amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax for those with health conditions making in-person voting hazardous. The plaintiffs suggest that the state provide pre-paid postage for mail ballots and permit voters to choose another person to submit sealed ballots on their behalf.
The suit also argues that ballots postmarked by Election Day should count regardless of when they are received, citing concerns that the U.S. Postal Service, which is facing budget shortfalls, could be delayed in returning ballots, potentially disenfranchising voters. Lastly, the lawsuit raises concerns about the share of ballots that might be rejected.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Doug Born of Cumberland County, says he requested an absentee ballot because he lives with his 98-year-old father, but he is worried that his ballot will be rejected because his signature has gotten truncated as he has gotten older.
The current restrictions on voter registration and absentee ballots affect all voters, but are particularly acute for older voters, who are more likely to worry about health complications due to the coronavirus outbreak, the lawsuit argues. One in five Mainers are over the age of 65, the highest proportion of any state.
The Alliance for Retired Americans, a nonprofit for retired workers affiliated with the AFL-CIO, has filed similar lawsuits in half a dozen other states, including Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin.