AUGUSTA — Don’t seek solutions to nonexistent problems.
During a public forum that stretched more than two hours Thursday evening at the University of Maine at Augusta, roughly 20 speakers shared variations on that refrain with a five-member commission assigned to review Maine election practice and suggest improvements.
Representatives from the League of Women Voters, Maine Women’s Lobby, Maine People’s Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and other advocacy groups lined up to present arguments against laws that would require photo identification for voters or tougher rules against allowing college students to cast ballots in Maine.
No one spoke in favor of mandating voters to present photo identification at the polls. However, Christine Keller, Fairfield’s town clerk, did urge the commission to consider ways to “fill some holes in the integrity of the voting system.” Among her suggestions were eliminating oaths as proofs of residency and allowing same-day sharing of information to allow municipalities to de-activate voters when they register in another city or town.
Thursday’s forum was the first of eight public events that the Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine scheduled at various locations throughout Maine to solicit input on all aspects of the state’s election system.
In February, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee directed Secretary of State Charlie Summers to order a thorough study of Maine’s election system. That vote occurred after the committee decided not to move forward with legislative consideration of a carryover bill that would have required voter identification.
The commission, chaired by former Maine Superior Court judge John Atwood, was appointed in May and has met five times since then. It must report its findings and recommendations for legislation by Feb. 1, 2013.
Other members of the commission are former Bangor Mayor Larry Willey; Tim Wilson of the Seeds of Peace program; former Portland and South Portland City Clerk Linda Cohen; and former U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby.
The commission is conducting its work in an environment where Republicans continue to push for election reform in response to — largely unsubstantiated — claims of voter fraud, while Democrats vehemently argue against such measures as attempts to suppress voting blocs that traditionally support them.
In June 2011, Gov. Paul LePage signed LD 1376, An Act To Preserve the Integrity of the Voter Registration and Election Process, which banned same-day voter registration. House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, sponsored LD 1376, which was endorsed by Secretary of State Charlie Summers. The bill passed largely along party lines.
Progressive groups immediately began collecting signatures, which triggered a citizens’ veto referendum that overturned LD 1376 in November 2011.
In July 2011, Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster produced a list of 206 names of college students who he said should be investigated for voter fraud. He tied their votes to Election Day registration even though there was no direct connection.
About two months later, Summers announced the findings of that investigation. Although he found no evidence of fraud, Summers said his probe revealed that Maine’s elections system was “fragile and vulnerable” to errors.
Speakers on Thursday pointed to Summers’ investigation and the lack of data to substantiate voter fraud in Maine or nationally as arguments against stricter voter identification laws.
Arthur Davis, 73, of Woolwich, spoke first. An African-American born and raised in Jacksonville, Fla., Davis told commission members that he had experienced racial segregation and voter suppression firsthand. Citing African-Americans and the elderly as groups that would suffer disproportionately if required to present photo IDs in order to vote, Davis said, “The problem is lack of participation, not fraud.”
Pat Lewis, also of Woolwich, identified herself as a longtime poll worker. She compared the cost of acquiring certified birth certificates or other documents proposed as requirements for photo identification cards to the “poll tax my grandfather paid.”
Laura Harper of the Maine Women’s Lobby noted that “less than half of the women in America have a birth certificate with their current name on it” in making her case against tougher voter identification requirements.
Advocates for people with disabilities and for homeless voters also encouraged the commission to base any proposed changes in Maine’s electoral law on the premise that government ought not place obstacles before eligible voters and that the focus be on increasing participation.
“Participation is the bedrock of a vibrant democracy,” Davis said.
“To be able to vote keeps you connected to your community,” Thomas Ptacek of Homeless Voices for Justice said.
The question of how to deal with college students who seek to vote in Maine also elicited discussion. Keller suggested that students living in dormitories and who are still considered dependents of their parents should vote in their home communities.
Willey asked Sarah Walton of the League of Women Voters if she was familiar with a 1990 ruling from the state attorney general’s office that addressed the definition of “domicile” as it relates to student voter registration. Walton replied that, although she had read the ruling, “It didn’t make me think, ‘Gee, that’s clear.’”
Jane Edwards, a retired law librarian, urged the commission to research federal laws related to questions about student voting rights.
The potential for fraud from Maine’s increased use of absentee ballots and logistical problems that absentee ballots cause for poll workers also spurred conversation. Keller voiced concern that the system has shifted from “necessity absentee balloting to convenience balloting,” but without providing financial support to cities and towns to pay for that convenience.
While photo identification, student voters and absentee balloting dominated the conversation Thursday, speakers and commission members also raised questions about the merits of unified polling places versus wards, access for disabled voters and the reliability of ballot-counting machines.
The commission’s next public forum is scheduled for Aug. 30 at Portland Public Library.