John Paul Stevens, one of the most admirable among recent U.S. Supreme Court justices, came to believe that his opinion upholding an Indiana voter ID law in 2008 was correct as to the law but perhaps unjust in its effects, later calling it a “fairly unfortunate decision.”

Another distinguished judge, Richard Posner, who wrote the Court of Appeals opinion the Supreme Court reviewed, came around to that view explicitly, saying such laws are “now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.”

But because the courts got it wrong then does not mean we cannot get it right now.

Voter ID requirements remain robustly popularly. Yes, they are especially favored by Republicans, who’ve been falsely instructed by their party’s leaders that American elections are suspicious and corrupt – when in fact they’ve never before been as closely monitored and verified.

But a large number of Democrats also like voter ID, though they’ve been told it amounts to voter suppression. What gives?

The fault lines were on display during the hearing on a bill from Sen. Matt Pouliot (R-Augusta) that would require residents to show photo ID before voting. LD 34 attracted more than 90 pieces of written testimony, plus many more oral statements, some impassioned.


Democrats were uniformly against the bill. Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said the bill’s provisions for a free ID to anyone who doesn’t have one – a provision the original Indiana bill lacked – would drive up costs.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey spoke about inevitable legal challenges, though not mentioning they will ultimately fail, since the 2008 Supreme Court precedent, unless modified by the court itself, is binding.

And Gov. Janet Mills said, without much explanation, that “This bill, if enacted would disproportionately impact our senior citizens, working people, and those who lack access to reliable transportation.”

And she concluded, “At a time when democracy seems in peril, Maine should be engaging its people in the civic and electoral process, not looking to disenfranchise them.”

With all due respect, this seems a bit overheated.

Voter ID, like other issues surrounding elections, has become a partisan issue when there was no need for that to happen.


There are other examples. There’s no reason why ranked choice voting should be embraced by Democrats and reviled by Republicans, but that’s the way it’s worked out in Maine.

Nationally, mail-in voting, a virtual necessity during the pandemic, was denounced by Donald Trump with his usual lack of evidence, with the result that Democrats gained at least a short-term advantage in key swing states.

Sen. Pouliot extended an olive branch during his testimony. Although his initial version did not allow for college-issued IDs, he suggested the bill could be amended for that purpose.

It’s doubtful if Democrats, with strong majorities, will change their minds without additional persuasion.

We might start by asking why there’s such broad, consistent support for the concept – routine in most democracies, and which can be seen as “common sense.”

Supporters ask why an ID is required to board a plane – and, since Sept. 11, a bus or train – but not to exercise the highest privilege in a democracy?


What if it’s not about either “voter fraud” – vanishingly rare in Maine, as elsewhere, or even “voter suppression”?

In Maine, more than elsewhere, virtually no one is turned away from the polls. Any legitimate voter can cast a provisional vote, which will be counted.

What if the real purpose for showing ID would be to increase confidence in elections, and make it easier to run them smoothly?

We might have some compassion for our oft-beleaguered election clerks, who must make quick decisions about whether someone is who they say they are, and if the alternative proof of identity – a utility bill, say – is legitimate.

A photo ID, issued by the state or other recognized official source, could be of genuine value.

As to setting up the system, it needn’t be as difficult as we imagine. Maine already has an “automatic” voter registration law enrolling new voters at BMV and DHHS offices unless they specifically decline.


We could amend election law to ensure photo IDs are in place well in advance of elections. Having an ID can have other uses, and provide other protections, beyond voting.

We could treat it as an exercise in civics and voter education and set an example to the nation about how opposing sides can come together and craft pragmatic solutions.

No doubt it would incur some expense, require some work, and take some time to roll out and fully implement. But isn’t democracy worth it?

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated Attorney General Aaron Frey’s title.

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