When I arrived in Maine a year ago to serve as the Maine Democratic Party’s inaugural voter protection director – working to ensure that every eligible Maine person could register, vote and have their vote counted in 2020 – I thought I’d have it easy.

Portland residents line Congress Street outside City Hall on Oct. 29, waiting to cast absentee ballots. The city didn’t offer pre-Election Day in-person voting on weekends until voters demanded it. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

My counterparts in states like Georgia, North Carolina and Wisconsin were fighting antagonistic secretaries of state, voter roll purges and laws requiring photo ID to vote or notarization of absentee ballots. Meanwhile, I was lucky to work in a state with no-excuse absentee voting, no ID law to vote and path-breaking policies like ranked-choice voting and the enfranchisement of incarcerated Mainers.

But my naivete about Maine’s ballot access leadership soon went the way of my COVID-interrupted plans to enjoy lobster rolls on the beach. Shining a bright light on the protocols through which Maine people register and vote – from town offices to the State House – my team saw how far Maine still has to go to live up to the voter-friendly reputation it claims.

First, while Maine has many good laws on the books, administration of elections by roughly 500 municipal clerks has led to problematic variability in compliance. The vast majority of clerks we investigated ask new voters for photo ID – a clear violation of Maine’s more inclusive standard, with “official documents” like utility bills, bank statements and pay stubs all named in the law as sufficient on their own. (Indeed, I was told I could not register to vote using my utility bill, even after showing the Portland city clerk the statute on my smartphone screen.) Many Maine people have licenses, but those less likely to – such as New Mainers, students and the elderly – are systematically excluded by misapplication of the law.

After we drew clerks’ attention to this mistake, some were mortified. Others refused to acknowledge their noncompliance, or said they would act only with guidance from the Secretary of State’s Office. Unfortunately, it took the secretary of state months to issue clerks a reminder about the full slate of documentation Mainers can use to register – and even then it was limited to a short paragraph amid dozens of pages in a standard pre-election mailer. Unsurprisingly, the problem persisted. As late as October, we found that 85 municipalities (out of only the 200 largest) were still violating the registration statute. When we presented this list, the Secretary of State’s Office took no further action to stop these municipalities from imposing improper barriers to Mainers’ voter registration.

Similar foot-dragging met other warnings about noncompliance, such as our alert that multiple clerks were interrogating voters who requested absentee ballots about their reasons for doing so – a violation of Maine’s “no excuse” law – and that many clerks were not up to speed on the protocols for fixing – or “curing” – defective absentee ballots (such as those whose return envelopes voters forgot to sign). The secretary had rolled out a new cure process over the summer but did not train clerks on how to implement it.

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Second, Maine lacks many common-sense voting laws seen elsewhere. Unlike Americans in 40 other states, Mainers cannot register to vote online. Maine also lacks true early voting: In-person voting before Election Day is fully dependent on when municipal offices are open to offer absentee ballots. Lucky enough to live in Kennebunk or Lewiston leading up to Nov. 3? You could vote weekdays during business hours and on some nights and weekends. In Cape Elizabeth? Your early voting was initially limited to just over 21 hours per week, and never before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m. Even Portland had no weekend access until voters demanded it; given this limited availability, in-person absentee voting lines routinely reached upward of three hours.

Third, COVID-19 and threats to the U.S. Postal Service shifted voter preferences for when and how to vote, demanding innovation to ensure safe, inclusive access. Maine chose not to take obvious steps – like distributing ballots or ballot applications, prepaying return postage for absentee ballots and counting ballots postmarked by Election Day – even while red and purple states did. Though Maine saw record participation, we cannot judge our success on overall turnout, especially given our older, whiter electorate. We must measure ourselves by the needless hoops we made voters jump through – and those on the margin who never made it through them.

Last year, I saw behind the curtain of Maine election administration, bearing witness to many tireless clerks working in good faith to enfranchise their municipalities’ residents. However, I also saw complacency in the face of calls for innovation and inattention to clear patterns of inefficiency and illegal behavior.

Last month, state Sen. Shenna Bellows was elected by the Legislature to succeed Matt Dunlap as secretary of state, and on Monday, she officially took office. As Maine looks ahead to future elections, I hope citizens press Bellows, Gov. Mills, the Legislature and their municipal councilors and clerks to improve the inclusiveness of our voting statutes and the diligence of our election administration.

The state motto, “Dirigo,” means “I lead” – but Maine still has a long way to go to finally embody the ballot access leadership it claims.


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