AUGUSTA — Maine will join a growing number of states in allowing online voter registration if a bill approved Thursday by the state Senate moves forward.

The Senate approved the bill 22-12 without debate, with minority Republicans in opposition. In the House, the measure passed Wednesday on a vote of 81-61, also on party lines. Both chambers must still cast final votes on the bill.

It was the second major step lawmakers have taken to increase ballot access in Maine. Earlier this week, the Legislature approved a bill that would allow unenrolled voters to cast ballots in a party primary without having to join a party.

Also before the Legislature are several bills that would make permanent voting changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes, aimed at reducing the spread of the virus, included establishing absentee ballot drop boxes and extending the period of time for clerks to process absentee ballots.

All of the bills face additional votes before going to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

The proposed voting changes come as several other states with Republican-led legislatures have been enacting laws that critics contend restrict voting, including Texas, Florida, Arizona and Georgia.

The online voter registration bill, sponsored by Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, would have Maine join 41 other states and the District of Columbia that allow the practice, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Currently Maine voters can request an application to register online but must return that application to their local election officials by mail or in person. Maine residents can also register in person on Election Day.

Pierce said allowing online registrations will not only ease the process for voters, it will help make it more secure while saving local election officials, usually town and city clerks, time processing the applications.

“The more people who participate in our democracy, the stronger our representation will be,” Pierce said. “If we want to pass legislation that truly meets the needs of Maine people, we need to make the voter
registration process easier for folks who are eligible.”

The bill, L.D. 1126, also has the support of Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat. Bellows said that while Maine already enjoys one of the highest voter participation rates in the U.S., online registration would make voting even more accessible.

“Mainers – no matter who they are or where they come from – deserve the freedom to exercise their
right to vote, and to have that process be convenient, easy to use, and secure,” Bellows said. “Americans today are accustomed to having the option to conduct nearly all their life’s business online. Banking, grocery shopping, medical appointments, vehicle registrations – even vehicle purchases – can be safely conducted online. It is a reasonable expectation that voters be able to register to vote online as well.”

Opponents to online voter registration say the system could be gamed and that Maine already provides voters with ample opportunities to register and vote.

In other action Thursday morning, the House passed a bill clarifying what the state’s child endangerment laws cover to include allowing a child access to a loaded firearm. The 77-67 approval of L.D. 759 also followed party lines, with Republicans in opposition. The bill would allow a person to be charged with the Class D misdemeanor of endangering the welfare of a child if a child finds a gun, fires it and injures themselves or others.

The legislation follows a series of recent incidents in Maine involving children and others being injured by gunfire after a child finds and fires a weapon.

A shooting in May in West Bath involved a 2-year-old. Ian Carr, the child’s father, was charged with endangering the welfare of a child after the child found a loaded 9 mm handgun on a bedside table and fired it, wounding both Carr and his wife, who were sleeping in a nearby bed.

The child was also injured by the pistol’s recoil, according police reports, while an infant sleeping nearby escaped injury.

In other action at the Legislature Thursday:

• The House rejected a bill that would have prohibited at-will employment in Maine, but then approved a bill directing the Department of Economic and Community Development to form a task force to study the impact of ending at-will employment, which allows employers to terminate workers for any reason, so long as it isn’t illegal.

• The House also approved, 106-31, a resolution calling for amending the state constitution to guarantee the right to food. To be sent to voters for ratification, the measure would also need two-thirds support in the state Senate.

• The Senate approved a bill that would direct the Maine Public Employees Retirement System to divest its fossil fuel investments. The 18-15 vote in the Senate split largely along party lines with Republicans voting to oppose it. The measure faces one more vote in the House, which initially approved the bill, 80-57, on June 3.

• The Senate voted 24-10 to give initial approval to a bill that would prohibit corporate campaign contributions to lawmakers or political action committees controlled by lawmakers. The bill faces additional votes in the House.

• The Senate voted 21-13 to give initial approval to a bill that would require state government to give Maine companies preferential treatment when bidding on state contracts for services or goods.

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