Politics

February 5, 2013

Maine panel rejects voter IDs, backs early voting

The state commission that studied Maine's elections says there is little or no history of voter fraud.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA A state commission has recommended that Maine reject any effort to require voters to show identification at the polls.

By a 4-1 vote, The Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine said in a report that there is "little or no history in Maine of voter impersonation or identification fraud."

It also said such a law would slow down the voting process and could work to disenfranchise elderly, poor or rural voters, many of whom don't have IDs or may not be able to travel far to get them.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine applauded the report, which also asks the state to establish an early voting system, in which residents would be able to cast ballots before Election Day.

Early voting would require an amendment to the Maine Constitution, as is being proposed this session in a bill sponsored by state Rep. Michael Shaw, D-Standish. There is no pending legislation to require IDs.

"We are thrilled the commission rejected voter ID and endorsed true early voting," said Shenna Bellows, the Maine ACLU's executive director. "We hope that this report puts to rest, finally, the controversy of the past years surrounding voter rights."

The report was leaked to the Huffington Post, which published it Tuesday, catching state officials off guard.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap is scheduled to present the report to the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

"We don't know how it got out there," said Melissa Couture, a Dunlap spokeswoman. She said Dunlap, a Democrat who expressed opposition to voter ID in a speech after his January swearing-in, wouldn't comment on the report until his presentation.

Dunlap's predecessor, Republican Charlie Summers, supported voter ID. But the issue didn't go anywhere during his tenure.

A bill in 2011 sponsored by then-state Rep. Richard Cebra of Naples -- now chairman of the Maine Republican Party -- would have implemented an ID system.

But the bill was rewritten to create the commission that studied Maine elections and authored the new report.

Cebra couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

In 2011, nearly 60 percent of voters at referendum overturned a bill signed by Gov. Paul LePage that would have banned same-day voting registration in Maine.

The new report also recommends modest changes to voting laws, including addressing the potential for fraud in family members' ability to get a ballot for a relative and clearing up questions between residency and domicile -- highlighting a difference between having a home in Maine and having a primary home in Maine.

That was a concern in 2011, when Summers and Charlie Webster, a former Maine Republican Party chairman, complained that college students weren't getting Maine driver's licenses before voting.

Bellows, of the ACLU, called the report's findings on that a "solution in search of a problem," saying residency for voting purposes isn't the same as it is in other areas of statute.

She also disagreed on the commission's approval of one Republican-led change in the last Legislature -- moving the absentee voting deadline back to the Thursday before Election Day, which was supported by the Maine Town and City Clerks' Association.

There are at least two Democratic proposals pending in the Legislature to roll that change back.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said she wouldn't comment on the report Tuesday, as the governor's office hadn't had time to review it.

State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

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