November 2, 2010

Can early voters change their choices? Maine modifies its policy on re-voting

By Rebekah Metzler rmetzler@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA — The Maine Secretary of State's Office has revised its policy on early or absentee voters who want to change their votes, in response to legal questioning Monday by the campaign of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler.

But the policy crafted Monday, to allow an early voter to "re-vote" if they claim their first ballot did not reflect their true intent, was not communicated to municipal clerks, said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

"We have not been able to get any word out to the clerks because they are all busy doing their work right now," Dunlap said late Monday.

Clerks in several of Maine's largest cities said no voters appeared Monday to change their absentee ballots. In South Portland, one couple who did try to re-vote were told they could not, under state law.

Dunlap, a Democrat who was elected secretary of state by the Legislature, said lawyers for the Cutler campaign contacted his office Monday morning, inquiring about election law and the circumstances under which a person who voted absentee could re-vote.

"Our understanding was, when we talked to the Cutler campaign, is that these would be very individualized circumstances that would be sent to us," Dunlap said. "But they broadcast it as a blanket thing that people could go willy-nilly and change their minds and re-vote, and that's not really what we had intended with our earlier discussions with them."

The Cutler campaign sent an e-mail to supporters at 12:45 p.m. Monday, telling them that even if people had voted absentee, they could still change their votes.

Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner said Monday that Maine law allows a second absentee ballot for a voter who can "state good cause, including, but not limited to, loss of, spoiling of or damage" to their first ballot.

In the past, Dunlap said, the law has been interpreted not to allow new ballots for voters who change their mind.

"Now the Cutler campaign has challenged that and we've backed off on that," he said.

Instead, Dunlap said, a clerk could issue a new ballot to an early voter who says their first ballot "did not reflect their voter intent."

The new ballot would be considered a challenged ballot, while the first ballot would be considered spoiled. Challenged ballots are issued secret numbers so the secretary of state can keep track of them.

In the event of a recount, Dunlap said, the office can pull a challenged ballot "and re-link it with whatever relevant information we need to provide to the court so they can determine whether or not to allow the vote."

He said the process is intended to allow people to vote if they arrive at the polls without the documentation they need to register.

"We give them a challenged ballot, and then if there's a reason, if there's a recount, we can go in and actually make sure they are a qualified voter, when there's more time to reflect on that," he said.

The opportunity to re-vote was available Monday only in municipalities that had not begun processing absentee votes. More than 60 municipalities had already received permission to begin that process, including Augusta, Bangor, Portland and Scarborough.

Clerks in Auburn, Lewiston and Waterville – where processing of absentee ballots had not begun – said nobody appeared to re-vote. South Portland reported just the one couple.

No one who voted absentee and wanted to change their ballot would be allowed to do it on Election Day, Dunlap said. "Once that envelope is opened and the ballot is cast, you cannot go through this process," he said.

Dunlap said it is unclear whether his office has the legal standing to say definitively that a voter can be denied a new ballot if the only reason is they want to change their vote.

Spokesmen for Democrats and Republicans derided the Cutler campaign for pursuing re-voting.

"We think that it's sort of a desperate ploy from the Cutler campaign and an admission that they feel that they can't beat (Republican) Paul LePage," said Arden Manning, campaign manager for the Maine Democrats' coordinated campaign.

Lance Dutson, spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, said Cutler should have spent more time reaching out to voters than crying about the rules of the game.

"This is just one more desperate attempt by Eliot Cutler to try to somehow make himself relevant, as his support is obviously not going to take him over the finish line," Dutson said.

 

Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Tom Bell contributed to this report.

 

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

 

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