AUGUSTA – The coalition leading the effort to preserve same-day voter registration in Maine officially started its campaign Thursday with a news conference at the State House.

Barbara McDade, president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Maine, said the state’s 38-year-old law allowing voters to register on the day of an election should be saved.

“Same-day registration has worked and has helped our state to become a leader in voter participation,” she said.

The Republican-led Legislature passed a law in June to require voters to register at least two business days before an election. With the new law, Maine would join 41 other states that do not allow same-day registration.

The Protect Maine Votes coalition led a petition drive this summer that gathered more than 70,000 signatures to put the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot. The new law cannot take effect while the people’s veto referendum is pending.

Opponents of same-day registration say it makes the state vulnerable to voter fraud, while same-day supporters say the new law would disenfranchise voters.

Rep. Jon McKane, R-Newcastle, who voted for the legislation eliminating same-day registration, said even with the change, Maine would be one of the easiest states in which to vote.

“The problem is the security of the vote, of the registration. You need a couple days to do it,” he said after the news conference.

The referendum will follow a spate of election law changes across the country, backed mostly by new Republican majorities. Many states have adopted or considered laws to require photo identification to vote. A similar bill failed in the Maine Senate earlier this year.

McDade and others who support a people’s veto said they fear that because of the trend, the referendum could serve as a battleground for national groups.

“We see leagues across the country facing this in their states, so there does seem to be a national movement to restrict voting rights,” McDade said. “I think when the (Legislature) passed this legislation, when they decided to roll back voting rights, they underestimated the people of this state.”

Members of the “Yes on 1″ campaign said they plan to use the more than 1,000 volunteers who gathered petition signatures to knock on doors and make phone calls supporting the people’s veto.

The question, which will be first on the ballot, will ask voters: “Do you want to reject the section of Chapter 399 of the Public Law of 2011 that requires new voters to register to vote at least two business days prior to an election?”

Lance Dutson, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, said his organization plans to be active in supporting the law to eliminate same-day registration. He said he’s not aware of any plans for a broad coalition opposing the people’s veto, or of any national support.

“People in Maine are comfortable with these steps and they want to take further steps,” he said.

“This is not an issue that has swelled from the grass-roots; it’s a contrived campaign,” Dutson said. “So that’s why you’re not seeing these national groups coming in, because it’s not, frankly, a contentious issue.”

Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, so far has been the most vocal supporter of eliminating same-day registration. He said recently that the GOP will likely play a part in opposing the people’s veto, but probably not a leading role.

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

rmetzler@mainetoday.com