Find Maine on a map and you see that we are stuck in the upper right-hand corner of the nation, not on anyone’s way anywhere.

But politically we can be right in the middle, and a little home-grown issue can turn out to be an item on someone’s national agenda.

How else can you explain the sudden interest in election reform bills, which have been hotly contested in this year’s legislative session?

It’s certainly not a response to voter fraud, although state Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster appears to have a gut feeling that it has been widespread since the Muskie era. (How else would all those Democrats win elections?)

The chairman aside, Maine has had well-above-average voter participation and only two documented cases of voter fraud in 30 years.

Still, the Republican-controlled Maine Legislature grappled with a pair of bills that would protect against potential fraud, even if it meant preventing some eligible voters from casting ballots. In classic moderate Maine fashion, the Legislature passed one bill and killed the other.

The one that passed ends Election Day registration, disadvantaging students, the elderly, busy working people or anyone else who had moved since the last election and didn’t have time to get to Town Hall. It passed on virtually party line votes in the House and Senate, indicating which party lawmakers think this will help.

The other bill, which would have required voters to present a photo ID at the polls, passed the House in a partisan vote and just missed in the Senate.

These voting reforms have been described as a solution in search of a problem, which is true on the state level. But when you look nationally, Republican efforts to make voting more difficult address a very real problem for the party.

Demographic trends don’t bode well for the GOP. A 2009 Gallup Poll said 89 percent of party members are non-Hispanic whites, while Democrats and independents are more diverse. The problem for Republican candidates is that the percentage of non-Hispanic whites is shrinking in election results, especially in presidential years.

Republican pollster Mark Murphy has written that in 1980, 80 percent of voters were white and a majority voted for Ronald Reagan. In the last election, 74 percent were white. If the Reagan-Carter election had been held in 2008, Murphy said, Reagan still would have won, but without nearly the 10 percent margin of victory he enjoyed back then.

Murphy sees these demographic trends as a call for change inside the Republican Party, urging its members to change their message to appeal to people from other ethnic groups. (And ages. The Republicans have been steadily losing younger voters of all races.)

Instead, some national Republicans are using state voting laws to make it harder to vote, under the theory that lower turnouts among certain demographic groups will benefit their candidates.

That’s why 30 states considered voter ID bills this year, with no more evidence of voter fraud than Maine lawmakers had to work with.

Voter ID requirements would suppress turnout. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that 11 percent of citizens – some 21 million people – don’t have a photo ID. If you look specifically at low-income people, the number jumps to 15 percent. For eligible young voters, it’s 18 percent. Among black voters, 25 percent do not have current identification.

By cutting into the party’s base, it’s pretty clear that this “reform” would hurt Democratic more than Republican candidates and could swing the election results in a perennial battleground state like Ohio, which is considering a bill that would not only require a photo ID, but also make student IDs unacceptable at the polling place. (A Texas bill would also make student IDs off limits, but anyone with a concealed-weapons permit could go ahead and vote.)

Whether Maine’s voter bills are part of an explicit national strategy to suppress voter turnout, or whether our Republicans are independently coming up with the same ideas as their counterparts, it doesn’t really matter.

Last Election Day, about 20,000 Maine people registered. In 2008, 60,000 Mainers registered and voted on the same day. Depending on how you slice them, losing those votes could make the difference in a close race, tipping the whole state in a presidential election.

Maine has managed to have inclusive election laws and a system with plenty of integrity. Our elected officials should honor the system that we have (and that elected them) and stay out of a national scheme to game the next presidential election.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]