AUGUSTA – A bill to end same-day voter registration won final legislative approval Friday night after a long and bitter Senate debate.
The Senate voted 17-14 to pass L.D. 1376, giving Republicans one of their biggest victories of the session. Gov. Paul LePage has said he will sign the bill.
Democrats didn’t make its passage easy.
Infuriated by a Republican leader’s published statements accusing the Democratic Party of stealing elections, Senate Democrats gave speeches for hours Friday and made some of the most heated arguments since the legislative session began in January.
At one point, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, was ruled out of order for shouting.
The tone and length of the debate surprised some observers.
Earlier in the day, groups that opposed the bill were so sure it would pass that they were mulling their next steps, such as a legal challenge or a people’s veto referendum campaign.
But comments by Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, put the bill’s fate in doubt for a few hours after the debate began in midafternoon.
Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz wrote in his column Friday that Webster believes that, to win tight races, Democrats have brought in voters by the busload to districts where they don’t live.
“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 that Nemitz recorded. “Many of us believe that the Democrats intentionally steal elections.”
Senate Democrats called the statements “un-American and shameful.”
“I don’t know if this is more absurd, more outrageous or more insulting,” said Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham.
Noting that Republicans now control the Legislature, Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, said, “Where are our buses? … We didn’t do a very good job stealing the elections, did we?”
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Webster told him Wednesday that the bill’s passage would damage the political viability of some Democrats.
“He said, ‘This strategy will ensure that socialists and liberals like you won’t get elected anymore,’ ” Alfond said.
Webster, who watched the debate on the Internet from his office in Augusta, said the Democrats’ attacks against him are a sign that they are desperately trying to protect an election system that they have used for their political advantage.
Webster said he never made the statements that Alfond attributed to him.
“He lied. It’s an outright lie,” Webster said. “This is how desperate they are to keep this law.”
Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, the Senate’s assistant majority leader, said she was not proud of Webster’s comments in the newspaper and will speak to him about them.
But, she said during the debate, “This bill is not about newspaper articles. This bill is about preserving the integrity of the voter.”
The bill would end Maine’s 38-year practice of allowing people to register to vote on the day of an election. It also would ban absentee voting in the two business days before an election.
Republicans say the bill would prevent voter fraud and ease the workload of city and town clerks on Election Day. Democrats and other opponents of the bill say it would disenfranchise voters.
The House gave its final approval to the bill Thursday by a vote of 72-65.
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who stepped down from the rostrum Friday so he could participate in the debate, said Democrats were overreacting.
“Listening to this debate, you’d think we were on the verge of taking away a God-given right,” Raye said. “What we are talking about here tonight is hardly the outrage it has been portrayed.”
He noted that Maine would become the 43rd state to require that people register before Election Day.
The bill’s passage was one of the top goals of the Republican Party in this session. Republican-controlled statehouses around the country are rewriting voting laws to require photo identification at the polls, reduce the number of days of early voting or tighten registration rules.
L.D. 1376 represents a big change for elections in Maine. The current law has been credited with helping Maine rank among the states with the highest voter turnouts. In 2008, nearly 60,000 voters registered to vote on Election Day.
In Friday’s Senate vote, all 12 Democrats who were present voted against the bill, along with independent Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth. Sen. Chris Rector of Thomaston was the only Republican to oppose it.
Another Republican, Sen. Brian Langley of Ellsworth, who had voted previously against the bill, was absent.
Sens. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, and Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, also were absent.
Before the bill goes to the governor’s desk, one of the senators who was absent could request that the vote be reconsidered.
Opponents say the fight isn’t over.
“We are going to do everything we can to restore voter rights for Maine people and are exploring every option, including legal options,” said Alysia Melnick of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
Groups opposing the bill include 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.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at: