May 21, 2013

Enhanced early voting? Maine a few votes short

The bill passed overwhelmingly, 90-50, but it still fell shy of the two-thirds majority it will need to go to a voter referendum.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The House of Representatives gave initial approval Monday to a proposed constitutional amendment to allow an enhanced early-voting system in Maine, but the vote tally was just short of the two-thirds needed for final passage.

The bill, 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.

The bill passed the House on a 90-50 vote, shy of the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments. The measure will be subject to additional votes in the House and Senate. Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for Senate Democrats, said the Senate will likely take up the measure Tuesday.

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.

However, all early voting in Maine to date has been done by absentee ballot, meaning the votes aren't counted until Election Day, when officials open the envelopes containing absentee ballots. Clerks have said that creates a large workload on Election Day. Shaw's bill would allow for those votes to be counted before then.

Maine has tried true early voting before in two separate pilot programs. Early voting was recommended by a state commission that studied the state's voting system in a report issued earlier this year.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap -- who was also in office during those pilot programs -- is in favor of Shaw's bill. The Maine Municipal Association was initially opposed, but now supports an amended version of the bill.

The first early-voting pilot program 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 the measure didn't get the necessary votes from the Legislature.

A larger pilot program took place in 2009, when nine municipalities participated, allowing early voting from Oct. 26 to 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.

In February, the Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine, a panel appointed by former Secretary of State Charlie Summers, recommended early voting, citing findings from the pilot programs.

However, on the House floor Monday, the bill found opposition from House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, who said the system would be little-used in small towns with fewer staff members to handle the vote.

He said it would be heavily used in cities, meaning access to the ballot would be skewed in favor of urban areas.

"The cities will be determining who our next governor is," Fredette said. "It will be the cities who are going to be determining the results of referendums."

But Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said the bill would simply enhance the early voting system the state already has.

"We already do this," she said. "We just make it as complicated as possible."

Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter @mikeshepherdme

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