AUGUSTA — A coalition that hopes to overturn the law enacted in June to eliminate same-day voter registration says it has gathered enough valid signatures to put a repeal question before voters in November.

Protect Maine Votes, a coalition of 18 groups including the League of Women Voters of Maine, the Maine Civil Liberties Union and the Maine League of Young Voters, submitted about 68,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office on Monday afternoon.

The total far exceeds the minimum of 57,277 needed to put the question on the ballot, but some signatures will likely get tossed out during the validation process. The submitted signatures already have been scrutinized by city and town officials.

Volunteers and paid canvassers have been collecting signatures for about three weeks. Coalition members said the effort to gather so many signatures in such a short time was unprecedented.

“Our democracy is diminished if we tolerate the abridgment of voting rights for a few. We must work vigilantly to protect not only our own rights, but the rights of our fellow citizens,” said Barbara McDade, president of the League of Women Voters of Maine.

Secretary of State Charles Summers has 30 days to review the petitions and validate signatures. If enough are approved, Mainers will weigh in on the issue in November. If not enough valid signatures are found, the coalition can keep gathering them and submit them again to try to get on the June 2012 ballot.

Maine’s 38-year-old law allowing same-day voter registration was replaced by legislation that says new voters may not register in the two business days before an election. Supporters said the change would provide relief for overburdened clerks, but detractors said it would disenfranchise some voters, particularly first-time voters, young people who move frequently, the elderly and the disabled.

Since the people’s veto effort began, some supporters of the new law have said it also would help to prevent fraud in Maine elections.

Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, has been a vocal opponent of the repeal effort.

“This debate will be about fraud. They want to try to make it about disenfranchisement,” he said. “The only people disenfranchised in this are people who work for a living and work all day and want to go vote at night; they want to know that their vote counts.”

Webster, who has been critical of college students from out of state who register to vote in Maine, called the coalition a “welfare coalition” and claimed it has a political motivation for repealing the new law.

For the past 20 years, the organizations in the coalition have managed to elect people who don’t represent the average Mainer, in part through “our lax election process,” he said.

Webster said that if Maine Republican Party leadership chooses to spend money campaigning against the people’s veto, he will gladly lead the effort.

“Once the fraud issues come out, I’m not sure we’re even going to need a lot of money to convince people that every other state has this law for a reason,” Webster said, noting that 42 other states ban same-day voter registration.

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, who sponsored the legislation, said it’s still too early to tell whether coalition members gathered enough valid signatures to force a repeal referendum in November.

“If they do, I’m confident the Maine voters will reject it,” he said in a prepared statement. “Mainers will still have 247 days a year to register. That doesn’t sound like voter suppression or disenfranchisement to me.”

Although the measure split the Legislature along partisan lines, the people’s veto effort is at least nominally bipartisan.

Jason Gayne of Skowhegan, a former organizer for the Maine College Republicans and a former Republican House candidate, said he helped gather hundreds of signatures.

“I’ve always worked to include as many people as possible in our elections, whether they agree with me or not, because our democracy works best when more people are involved, not less,” he said during a news conference at the State House on Monday.

“Voting is a prestigious right and we must ensure that everyone, regardless of age, income or ZIP code, exercises it,” he said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: rmetzler@mainetoday.com