AUGUSTA — The Maine House moved to significantly alter the state’s voting laws Monday, giving initial approval to proposals to eliminate same-day voter registration and to require photo identification to vote.

After hours of floor debate, each bill passed mostly along party lines.

Republicans argued that one of the bills would ease the burden on municipal clerks on Election Day and the other would reduce the potential for voter fraud. Democrats said both measures would create unnecessary hurdles to young, elderly and disabled voters.

The bill to require voters to show photo identification, L.D. 199, passed on a 75-69 vote. It was amended to allow people who go to the polls without identification to cast “provisional” ballots, which would be counted only under certain circumstances.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, also was changed to require the state to provide free ID cards to eligible citizens who don’t have acceptable photo identification such as a driver’s license.

“Carrying a photo ID has become a part of American life; that’s why it’s not unreasonable to request one in order to protect the most important privilege of citizenship,” said Cebra during the debate.

Cebra responded to Democrats who said the bill sends a message to Mainers that they aren’t to be trusted.

“The people of Maine are honest; the people who are dishonest are the political manipulators … who would take advantage of a loose system,” he said.

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, compared the measure to Jim Crow laws of the old South.

Requiring literacy and other tests seemed like perfectly acceptable standards for states to set, she said, but their intent was to prevent a certain constituency from voting.

Democrats also said that only two cases of voter fraud have been prosecuted in Maine in the last 30 years.

“Just because we haven’t prosecuted that many voter fraud issues, we all know that around the country there’s a lot of voter fraud,” said Rep. Jon McKane, R-Newcastle. “There’s no reason to think that it might not happen here or that in fact it may be happening.”

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, sponsored L.D. 1376, which seeks to ease municipal clerks’ concerns about absentee voting around Election Day.

The bill would eliminate citizens’ ability to register to vote on Election Day, something that a Republican-led Legislature legalized about 38 years ago. Nutting’s bill passed by a vote of 74-70.

“These changes will go a long way toward maintaining the integrity of our voting system, while providing an open and accessible voting process for all Mainers,” said Nutting in a release after the vote.

During the public hearing on the bill, clerks who testified said they supported the bill’s provision to ban absentee voting in the two business days before an election, but expressed concerns about eliminating same-day registration.

“I am a little bit concerned about disenfranchising voters. I’d much prefer to continue with the process we have in place” for voter registration, said Patti Dubois, Bangor’s city clerk, during the hearing in May.

Last year, about 20,000 people registered to vote on Election Day. In 2008, a presidential election year, the number was about 50,000.

“Same-day registration, I think, is crucial to all of the people in the state of Maine,” said Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco. “Eliminating Election Day registration will disproportionately affect the voting rights of our seniors, disabled and youth.”

Valentino said the two bills, together, send a mixed message.

“We’re trying to ease (clerks’) burden but yet in the very next bill we’re creating a burden for them on it? I don’t understand,” she said.

Checking identification and administering provisional ballots would be very time-concerning for clerks, Valentino said.

“We’re looking for a problem that does not exist,” she said. Both bills face further House and Senate votes.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]

 

This story was updated at 9:40 a.m. June 7 to correct the bill numbers of the two measures.