AUGUSTA — The House of Representatives approved a proposed constitutional amendment Thursday to allow an enhanced early-voting system in Maine, but the 92-56 vote was several short of the two-thirds margin that will be needed for final passage.
The bill, L.D. 156, sponsored by Rep. Michael Shaw, D-Standish, would change the Maine Constitution to give cities and towns the option of allowing in-person voting before Election Day. It does not specify how long before Election Day voting could take place.
The same bill received majority votes in the House and Senate last year, but fell short of the two-thirds margin in both chambers.
Democrats, who hold the majority in the Legislature, held the bill before it failed final passage last year and brought it back for the current session.
If finally approved by the House and Senate by two-thirds majorities, the bill would then go to voters in a referendum, where a simple majority vote would make it law.
Maine is one of 27 states that already allow no-excuse absentee voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The conference also lists Maine as one of 32 states that already allow early, in-person voting, but all early voting in Maine is done via absentee ballot.
Town and municipal clerks have complained that the absentee ballot process can be burdensome on Election Day.
Democrats said the bill would provide additional opportunities for people to vote. Shaw, during floor debate, said many voters have difficulty getting to the polls on Election Day because they work several jobs.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said there already are many opportunities to vote early.
“With citizenship comes responsibility,” he said. “It’s not too much to ask people to be engaged and show up to vote.”
In 2013, the Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine, a panel appointed by former Secretary of State Charlie Summers, a Republican, recommended allowing early voting, citing findings from the pilot programs.
“The bipartisan commission had good reason to recommend early voting. It increases turnout – a goal we should all strive toward – while relieving pressure on local officials who handle ballots,” said Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the chairman of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.
Nonetheless, the measure has been consistently opposed by Republicans, while Democrats have continued to push the issue. The partisan split may reflect how early voting affects electoral success for the two major parties.
Republicans said the constitutional amendment would not include a limit on early voting, leaving it to the Legislature to decide how early ballots could be cast.
“This is part of a broader liberal war on our sacred voting rights and traditions that is being waged for no other reason than to make it easier for Democratic political groups to turn out their supporters,” said House Republican Ken Fredette, of Newport. “This proposal would do away with the very idea of an election day.”
Democrats, nationally and in Maine, have touted their so-called ground game, a get-out-the-vote effort that targets college voters and other groups that traditionally back Democratic candidates.
While Republicans have attempted to beef up their ground game, recent elections suggest that the party is still lagging. Political observers have partially attributed President Obama’s electoral victories to a sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort that takes advantage of early-voting laws.
In some states Republicans have attempted to restrict early voting and adopt laws to restrict ballot access. During the 2012 presidential election, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said that state’s newly adopted voter ID law “is gonna allow Gov. (Mitt) Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” In Ohio, Republican election officials attempted to suspend early voting. Federal courts blocked those efforts.
In the 6th Circuit Court decision, the ruling found that “early voters have disproportionately lower incomes and less education than Election Day voters,” adding that many of them were less likely to have jobs that allowed them to take time off and vote on Election Day.
The partisan battle over ballot access has a history in Maine, too.
In 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that eliminated the state’s 38-year-old practice of same-day Election Day registration by requiring voters to register at least two business days before an election. The bill also prohibited absentee voting two days or less before Election Day.
Democrats and progressive groups quickly launched a highly organized and well-funded campaign to overturn the prohibition. Despite Republican claims that same-day voter registration made the voting system vulnerable to fraud, Maine voters overwhelmingly voted to restore same-day voter registration.
The prohibition on absentee ballots cast within two days of Election Day remains.
Maine has tested early voting before in two separate pilot programs.
The first was offered in 2007 by three municipalities – Portland, Bangor and Readfield. More than 1,800 voters cast early ballots, and municipal officials “enthusiastically embraced” it, according to a report from the Secretary of State’s Office.
The office later proposed a constitutional amendment to allow early voting, but it fell short in the Legislature.
A larger pilot program took place in 2009, when nine municipalities participated, allowing early voting Oct. 26-31 and on Nov. 2, the day before Election Day.
Nearly 13,000 people, or 23 percent of those who voted, used the program. The Secretary of State’s Office said in a survey that 98 percent of those voters supported the option for future elections.
This story has been corrected to remove a reference to when early vote ballots are counted. All ballots are counted after the polls close on Election Day.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: