After thirty-eight years, a sleeping (political) giant is now awake in the Pine Tree State. In June of 2011, the Maine State Legislature repealed the long-standing law permitting Mainers to register to vote on the same day as elections, and replaced it with a new law prohibiting same-day voter registration.
Pursuant to LD 1376, Maine now requires that all in-person registrations occur no later than the third business day prior to the election date. Maine’s departure from being one of the country’s eight states to offer same-day voter registration was not a landslide victory. In the House, seventy-two representatives voted in favor, while sixty-five were opposed and thirteen representatives were absent, and the Senate showed a similar divide with seventeen votes in favor, fourteen against, and four excused. The close divide in both the House and Senate illustrates the partisan divide over same-day registration which was ultimately passed under Maine’s Republican majority. Reportedly, only one House Republican and two Senate Republicans voted with Democrats to oppose the legislation.
Given the partisan divide, one wonders whether politics may ever be taken out of the same-day voter registration conversation. Peter Chandler, Chief of Staff for Congressman Michael Michaud (D-Maine) said*, “Politics will never be taken out of the issue of same-day voter registration.” The political fire began in the immediate aftermath of LD 1376’s passage, when the League of Women Voters of Maine filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office, launching a people’s veto campaign. On September 8, Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers announced that the League’s coalition submitted over 70,000 valid signatures, exceeding the minimum requirement by about thirteen thousand. As a result, the issue will be on the November 8 ballot.
Proponents of the legislation point to the issue of voter fraud, and claim the new law will ease the burden on municipal clerks during elections. The debate over voter fraud permeates the country and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld voter identification laws, amidst flimsy evidence of in-person voter fraud. Given the low constitutional standard for fraud, Mainers against the new legislation likely lack a constitutional argument but maintain a strong argument based upon on Maine’s history of voter registration. Chief of Staff Chandler stressed that Maine does not appear to have a voter fraud problem, with only two documented cases in recent decades, and claimed that the previous law encouraged Mainers to vote in elections. “[Maine] should be proud of our high voter turnout,” Chandler explained, referring to Maine’s rank as among the states with the highest voter turnouts. A whopping sixty-thousand Mainers registered on Election Day in 2008.
The future of Maine’s election laws is uncertain. Will Maine soon follow other states in tightening up its election laws by requiring photo identification in order to vote? For the moment, answers about the future of Maine voter law remain in the air; according to Chandler, “it will depend on the outcome of people’s veto [of the same day registration law]. If the people of Maine uphold the law…it will give [the State legislature] a green light to make more of these kinds of changes that make voting harder in Maine.”
* All quotations of Mr. Chandler come from a telephone interview by the author.
Rachel Provencher is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.