AUGUSTA – Shirley Casey was 10 years old when she walked with her mother to a polling place in Portland in 1948.

“She was all excited about the election between Truman and Dewey,” said Casey, 73, who now lives in Oakland. Her mother never got past the fifth grade in school, but she was proud of herself for going to vote for the first time.

“She got up to vote and her name wasn’t there because she wasn’t registered,” Casey said, “and she felt so bad and embarrassed and we came home.”

A quarter-century later, a Republican-led Legislature passed a law allowing voters to register on Election Day. Casey said she thought of her mother when she read about the legislation passed this month to eliminate that law.

“That always stuck in my mind,” she said of seeing her mother get turned away. “People aren’t going to know about this change; they are going to go down and try to vote” as her mother did.

A coalition that hopes to gather enough signatures to overturn the new law and maintain same-day registration said Thursday that its goal is to get the repeal question on the ballot this fall.

To do that, the group must gather at least 57,277 valid signatures in about a month. If the group gathers enough signatures but misses its deadline, the question won’t go to voters until June 2012.

The coalition filed its people’s veto application on Tuesday. The filing gave the Secretary of State’s Office 10 business days to craft a question on repealing the law. Supporters of the effort will then print petitions with the question and begin gathering signatures.

The coalition of more than 15 groups is led by the League of Women Voters of Maine and includes the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Disability Rights Center of Maine, the Maine People’s Alliance, the Maine League of Young Voters and the Maine Women’s Lobby. The Maine Democratic Party has pledged to aid the effort.

“Same-day registration is vastly important to people with disabilities because community service organizations and political parties often coordinate transportation services to assist individuals with accessing their local polling places,” said Sara Squires of the Disability Rights Center.

Other speakers at a State House press conference Thursday said changing the status quo would disenfranchise some of the tens of thousands of voters who have traditionally taken advantage of their opportunity to register on Election Day.

Supporters of the new law — which would put Maine in the company of 42 other states that do not allow same-day registration — say that it will help prevent voter fraud, and that no qualified voters will be prevented from voting.

“I think regular people are smart enough to figure out that … if they’re legitimate Maine citizens, they’ll just simply go and register two days early,” said Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party.

Webster, who last year led a successful people’s veto campaign to repeal a tax reform measure, said he doubts the coalition will meet its goal of getting on November’s ballot because of how long it takes to gather enough signatures.

“It’s not possible to be done in 30 days unless they have a lot of money,” he said.

The coalition and Webster both denied that same-day registration helps one political party over another.

“There were thousands of Republicans signing up to vote on Election Day in 2010,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the MCLU. “Quite frankly, same-day voter registration benefits the candidate or the party with the most momentum and popularity in the particular year.”

The new law was championed by House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and Secretary of State Charlie Summers, who was elected by the Republican-led Legislature, and passed along party lines. Only three Republicans in the Legislature sided with minority Democrats, who all voted against the measure.

Webster offered a vigorous defense of the new law.

“It allows people a chance to step back and make sure that those who are voting are legitimate citizens,” he said. “What I would suggest is, perhaps people that shouldn’t be voting are voting.”

When asked why only two cases of voter fraud have emerged since same-day registration was approved in 1973, Webster said it’s because Democrats have controlled the Legislature for that period.

“We’ve had one-party government for 35 years, including some nice people — a nice Democrat secretary of state, a nice attorney general who’s been a Democrat,” he said. “And frankly, if your party thinks that you benefit from this, why would the attorney general, who’s in that party, who gets elected by the Legislature, why would he challenge anything?”

Webster said students who come from other states to attend college in Maine often vote in local elections.

“Win or lose the election is not the point,” he said. “My mother’s vote and my vote and my wife’s vote are sacred, and I don’t want somebody who doesn’t live in my town, who doesn’t pay taxes in my town, to be able to cancel my vote out.”

He conceded that eliminating same-day registration would not prevent students from voting.

Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said Webster is living in a “fantasy land.”

“It’s just not based in reality and he hasn’t been able to come up with any evidence,” Grant said.

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

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