September 9, 2011

Registration law goes to referendum

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

AUGUSTA - Mainers will have an opportunity this fall to affirm or overturn legislation passed in June to repeal the state's 38-year-old law allowing voters to register on the day of an election.

Secretary of State Charlie Summers validated more than 70,000 signatures -- about 13,000 more than needed to force the referendum -- on Thursday, about a month after opponents of the new legislation submitted them.

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the voter registration law largely along party lines. Supporters of the measure said that eliminating same-day registration would help ease the workload of municipal clerks, even though a representative of the Maine Town and City Clerks' Association said the group wouldn't mind maintaining the practice.

The prohibition on same-day registration cannot take effect while a people's veto is pending. A portion of the law that sets new limits on absentee voting is not part of the people's veto effort and will not be affected by the referendum.

Members of the coalition that led the signature-gathering say that eliminating same-day registration would disproportionately affect disabled, elderly and student voters. They cheered Summers' ruling.

"Election Day registration makes it possible for many hardworking Mainers to participate," said Barbara McDade, president of the League of Women Voters of Maine. "Voting is fundamental to our democracy. We shouldn't create new ways to make participation harder."

This question will top the Nov. 8 ballot: "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?"

Supporters of maintaining same-day voter registration should vote yes on the question. Those who support the new law adding restrictions should vote no.

While the Protect Maine Votes coalition, which will campaign in support of same-day registration, has been formed for several months, opponents have been slow to emerge publicly.

Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, has been the most vocal supporter of the new law. He held a news conference alleging potential voter fraud and touting a list of more than 200 college students he suspected of being registered to vote in more than one place, though that is not illegal.

Webster said Thursday that he will not be a visible part of any campaign to uphold the law repealing same-day registration.

"We'll be a player, but my job is to elect candidates to the Legislature, not to run this kind of campaign," he said in an interview. "In all fairness, I would be involved in the ground game, because that's what I do. But I won't be the spokesman."

Webster said he attended a meeting last week of people who are interested in campaigning against the people's veto, but he declined to say who was there.

He also acknowledged the effort already made by those who support the veto. To get the question on the ballot, they had to collect about 57,000 valid signatures -- 10 percent of the turnout in the last gubernatorial election.

"It's very difficult and I commend them for doing it. The question is, can they sell their position to working people? And I would doubt they could," said Webster, who led an effort last year that repealed a tax reform law passed by Democrats along party lines.

"Should we have a law that most states don't have? That will be the debate," he said, noting that the new law makes Maine one of 42 states that do not allow same-day voter registration.

Volunteers are ready to begin campaigning, said David Farmer, spokesman for Protect Maine Votes, a coalition that includes the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, the Maine League of Young Voters and the Maine People's Alliance.

"Next week we'll do an official campaign launch event, probably in Augusta," he said in an interview. "The 1,000 volunteers who helped us collect our signatures in a really short amount of time have been anxious to get back out there and get back to work on the campaign, and we're getting ready to turn them loose and let them continue that work."

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

rmetzler@mainetoday.com

 

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