February 22, 2013

Our View: Maine should pass early voting amendment

State law should catch up to current practice, and take some pressure off election clerks.

With as much as a third of Mainers opting to vote early each election, it may come as a surprise to hear that Maine does not have early voting.

click image to enlarge

A voter fills out an absentee ballot in a voting booth in the hallway near the Augusta city clerk's office.

Staff file photo/Joe Phelan

When people here vote before Election Day, they are marking an absentee ballot, which is sealed up in an envelope and cast by a clerk.

That puts more pressure on people who already have too much to do at a time when the last thing they need is more pressure. A heavy absentee ballot turnout leads to slower reporting of results and greater danger for errors.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Shaw, D-Standish, would start to change that and put Maine on a path toward genuine early voting, where ballots are counted when they are cast.

The bill won't be enough to do that on its own. It is the first step in amending the Maine constitution, which lays out our current voting rules.

If approved by two-thirds of both bodies of the Legislature, the amendment would be sent to the voters for approval. We think the Legislature should take the first step and get this commonsense reform on track.

Maine is a national leader when it comes to voter turnout, and we need always to consider modernizing our practices to maintain that tradition. Maine voters are proud of their high level of participation and want to continue it, as shown by the 2011 people's veto campaign, which overturned an ill-considered attempt by a legislative majority to do away with Election Day registration.

Early voting would enable Maine to keep high participation rates as people's lives grow more complex. Rural voters are the most likely to have long commutes to work and the most likely to have a hard time getting to the polls during voting hours. That's also true for night shift workers and others who might not cast a vote unless they had an alternate time available.

The concept of early voting has been criticized by some, including 2010 gubernatorial near-miss Eliot Cutler, who claimed he might have won the election if voters had waited until the end to vote.

There is no way of knowing whether that is true, but we do know that people are already using absentee ballots for de facto early voting, and candidates will have to strategize accordingly or risk missing out. A lot of voters aren't waiting until Election Day and the campaigns shouldn't wait to get their message out either.

The goal should be maximum participation. Letting more people vote early, taking the pressure off election clerks and reducing lines at the polls are all steps in that direction. Lawmakers should move this forward.


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