It’s called pulling a fast one, and the Maine Legislature just did it right before our eyes.
Wednesday evening, after a long, sometimes passionate debate, the Republican-controlled Senate fell into place behind the Republican-controlled House and, by an oh-so-close 18-17 vote, nixed a 38-year-old law allowing Mainers to register to vote on Election Day.
And why, pray tell, did they do that?
“I don’t understand it. It’s a head-scratcher to me,” said Bangor City Clerk Patti Dubois, who is president of the Maine Association of Municipal Clerks, which opposed the move.
A quick recap:
Early on, Republicans who backed L.D. 1376, “An Act To Preserve the Integrity of the Voter Registration and Election Process,” said it was all about voter fraud — specifically, preventing politically motivated scoundrels from hopscotching all over Maine to vote multiple times in the same election.
Problem is, in the almost four decades since same-day registration was passed by another Republican-controlled Legislature, only one person has been caught casting two ballots. (Maine, it turns out, is a long way from, say, Chicago.)
Next, the GOP lined up behind Secretary of State Charlie Summers, who said he was all for the bill because it will alleviate a crushing burden reportedly faced each Election Day by municipal clerks and election workers from Kittery to Fort Kent.
Yes … and no. While the clerks do have a problem with recent waves of last-minute absentee ballots — in addition to cutting off new registrations at 5 p.m. on the Thursday before an election, the bill sets the same deadline for obtaining an absentee ballot — not one clerk has publicly objected to allowing people to register on Election Day.
In fact, according to Dubois, the statewide clerks association supported L.D. 1367 “with the caveat that they take out the provision to take away same-day voter registration” and simply move up the absentee-ballot deadline.
“Same-day registration wasn’t the issue for us,” said Dubois. “Ultimately, we want to facilitate voting — and it does that.”
She’s got that right. Over the past two general elections, about 68,000 Mainers have registered on the day they voted — helping to propel Maine to third in the nation for voter turnout, behind Minnesota and Wisconsin (where same-day registration is also allowed).
Nevertheless, Summers, in an interview Thursday, stuck to his guns when asked why he advocated solving a same-day registration problem that, according to the clerks, doesn’t exist.
“I think it does exist,” insisted Summers.
Back at the State House, proponents of the bill were reduced by late Wednesday to simply saying, over and over, that eliminating same-day registration will “protect the integrity of the voting process.”
Which brings us to Maine’s Central Voter Registration system — a database that since 2007 has served as an electoral clearinghouse for every municipal nook and cranny in Maine. Put simply, if you dare vote twice in the same election in this state, this system is going to catch you.
Don’t believe me? Then take a look at what the secretary of state himself had to say back in January, when he boasted to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that the system had helped election officials “smoothly administer a very busy and closely watched election” in November.
“Our primary objective has been to seamlessly implement a reliable system that facilitates the voter registration process and assures the accuracy and integrity of Maine’s elections,” Summers told the lawmakers. “I am confident that we have met and exceeded that goal.”
But that was then — and this is now. Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who serves on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, is among those who say Summers and his allies in the Legislature can’t have it both ways.
“On the one hand, he formally reported to our committee that the very system designed to protect the integrity of Maine’s election system is working and highly efficient,” Russell said in an email Thursday. “On the other hand, he is arguing we need a drastic overhaul of our election day registration system to protect the integrity of Maine’s election system. This is indefensible.”
Summers countered that his report dealt with year-round operation of the Central Voter Registration system, which is actually shut down on Election Day and then updated later. He then reiterated that doing away with same-day registration will help out all those election workers who, lest we forget, asked for no such help.
So one last time, exactly what’s the problem here?
We turn to the never-shy Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, who labored long and hard this week to persuade GOP legislators to hang together in deep-sixing same-day registration. (It wasn’t easy — Republican Sens. Chris Rector of Thomaston and Brian Langley of Ellsworth ultimately broke ranks and voted against the bill.)
“If you want to get really honest, this is about how the Democrats have managed to steal elections from Maine people,” Webster said in an interview Thursday. “Many of us believe that the Democrats intentionally steal elections.”
He’s talking about young people — college students (especially those from away), political activists (especially those from away), and anyone else (again, from away) who’s not previously registered and not likely to vote Republican.
“Buses. They bring them in in buses,” explained Webster. “Job Corps people — they move ‘em around to wherever they have a tough seat and they want to win an election.”
Give the man credit — at least he’s calling it like he (and only he) sees it.
Where this goes from here is anyone’s guess.
Nicola Wells, director of the Maine League of Young Voters, called the elimination of same-day registration a clear act of “voter suppression” by the Republicans and said her group is considering, among other things, a referendum campaign aimed at restoring an important part of Maine’s electoral process.
“We’re just not going to let this stand,” Wells said. “I don’t think this is what Maine voters wanted the Legislature to do when they elected their representatives last fall.”
Up in Bangor, meanwhile, City Clerk Dubois is already shuddering at the thought of Election Day 2012. (In addition to telling the unregistered they can’t vote, Dubois and her colleagues will be forced by another bill that’s nearing final approval to check every registered voter’s photo ID.)
“I would rather see Election Day registration continue rather than deal with the fallout,” Dubois said. “We’re going to have some very upset people.”
That, alas, will be the clerks’ problem.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: