Clean election and ballot access advocates on Friday condemned a bill that would virtually ban the gathering of voter signatures at the polling place on Election Day. The bill would also push candidates who are on the ballot back away from the polling place, ending a tradition of candidates greeting voters at the polls.
The proposal is a part of bill from the Maine Secretary of State’s Office that will be heard by the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday, the opening day of the legislative session. The committee has jurisdiction over state election and voting law.
“It’s some pretty big changes to sneak into an agency bill,” said Anna Kellar, the joint executive director of Mainers for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine.
State lawmakers in recent years have lamented the number of citizen-initiated bills that have been approved by voters, including major changes to marijuana law, voting, taxation and the minimum wage in just the last two years alone.
But Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat and former state representative himself, said Friday the proposed law change was not an attempt to restrict ballot campaigns.
“It’s really not a shadow effort to restrict the people’s right to petition their government,” Dunlap said. “That is not our intent.”
He said the changes are more a result of complaints from voters themselves and polling place officials who want to maintain orderly and “civilized” polling places.
“Sometimes signature gatherers are very, very aggressive,” Dunlap said. “They take things right to the very edge and it causes issues.”
Although local election officials can always expel people who are being disruptive or breaking existing laws that protect voter privacy, officials often don’t want to be perceived as “the heavies,” Dunlap said. He added that the Legislature has previously reviewed bills that would tighten up the restrictions for the state’s polling places.
“This is not new; this is a response to complaints we get from town clerks and voters themselves who complain to the heavens about this,” Dunlap said.
Among other changes, the bill, L.D. 1726, would repeal a provision of law allowing for collection of signatures in the voting place and replaces restrictions on political activities occurring within 250 feet of the voting place.
The new restrictions would ban several activities from within 50 feet of the entrance to the polling place and require a 50-foot activity-free pathway from a parking area or drop-off point to the polling place entrance, according to a summary of the bill.
“Exit polling, the collection of signatures for a candidate or a direct initiative of legislation or referendum and the conduct of charitable or other nonelection-related activities may occur only outside the designated zone,” the summary states. “It also applies these restrictions to the municipal clerk’s office during the time when absentee voting may be occurring.”
Kellar said her organization is going to ask the committee to strike the section of the bill that makes these changes when it meets next Wednesday.
“At first glance it does seem like there could also be some constitutional issues with this bill,” Kellar said.
The bill also came under fire from the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting and one of Maine’s gubernatorial candidates.
“Our constitutional right to direct democracy is under attack in Maine,” said a statement from the ranked choice group. “This year, our Legislature has overthrown the results of a free and fair election by blocking all four of the November 2016 citizen-approved referenda in one way or another. Now with this latest bill, they are trying to stop the people from exercising our right to petition our government by blocking our access to the polls.”
State Treasurer Terry Hayes, who is running for governor as an independent, also issued a statement opposing the bill.
“Maine people have a constitutional right to direct democracy that should not be taken away or diminished by statute,” she said. “Collecting signatures and signing a petition at the polls is one of the most democratic actions voters can take.”
The ranked choice group is gathering signatures for a people’s veto effort to reinstate the voting system that lawmakers blocked in the last legislative session.
The committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the bill at 1 p.m. in Room 437 at the State House on Wednesday, the first day of the second session of the 128th Legislature.