AUGUSTA — A proposal aimed at easing the burden on municipal clerks around Election Day was opposed Monday by several groups that said eliminating same-day voter registration would disenfranchise Maine voters.
L.D. 1376, sponsored by House Speaker Bob Nutting, R-Oakland, and supported by Secretary of State Charlie Summers, would ban absentee voting during the two business days before Election Day for most voters, and eliminate registration for most voters during the same period and on Election Day.
“The rapid increase in absentee voting in the last decade has created new challenges for our municipalities,” Nutting said during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.
The Maine Town and City Clerks Association testified in support of the proposal, but said it would favor an amendment to remove the restrictions on voter registration.
“I am a little bit concerned about disenfranchising voters. I’d much prefer to continue with the process we have in place,” said Patti Dubois, Bangor’s city clerk.
Fairfield Town Clerk Tracy Stevens, who spoke on behalf of the clerks association, said the rest of Nutting’s bill would go a long way toward easing the Election Day burden.
“Currently, most clerks are at their breaking point when it comes to absentee-voter turnout; a large portion of our time is spent tracking and processing absentee ballots,” she said.
Same-day voter registration was passed unanimously by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 1973. The push to increase absentee voting has been more recent.
Augusta City Clerk Barbara Wardwell said she has noticed a significant increase in absentee voting during the past 10 years.
“I am seeing a much higher percentage, from election to election, of absentee votes, which everyone has,” Wardwell said in an interview. “We have longer lines here on the Friday and Monday before Election Day than we do in the polling place.”
Neither Nutting nor Summers could point to a significant incident in Maine that prompted their concerns, but they emphasized the importance of getting ahead of any potential problems.
“Our responsibility is to make sure every Mainer has full access to their sacred right to cast a ballot. In order to ensure this, we need to adopt a lean-forward approach to our electoral oversight,” Summers said.
He said that in the presidential election of 2008, about 15 percent of absentee ballots were cast on the two business days before Election Day.
“Absentee ballots have been good for the citizens of the state of Maine,” Nutting said. “I see this as just being an attempt to reduce the workload of the municipal clerks.”
But groups including the Disability Rights Center, the League of Women Voters of Maine, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine League of Young Voters and the Maine Women’s Lobby all spoke against the proposal, mostly citing concerns about the change for voter registration.
Maine’s voter turnout is typically among the highest in the country, in part because of the same-day registration, said Michelle Small of the League of Women Voters of Maine.
John Smith of Brunswick, who was a deputy secretary of state for 10 years, said the measure would be a “radical departure” from the way Maine has successfully run elections.
“(It) imposes a new, unnecessary and entirely unwarranted set of burdens that will adversely impact several tens of thousands of voters in every election,” he said.
And there may be more to the proposal than meets the eye, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a partisan edge to the registration part,” he said. “If you’re a Democrat, you want as few restrictions on registration and voting as you can possibly get. And if you’re a Republican, you want tighter registration and voting requirements.”
That’s because, in recent decades, the Democrats generally have been the party of the “have-nots” and Republicans have been the party of the “haves,” Brewer said.
He said countless studies over the years have shown that the easier it is to register and vote, the higher the turnout is and the more likely it is that people with lower education levels and lower incomes will vote.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee plans to hold a work session on the bill Friday.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]