PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine for years has made voting as easy and convenient as possible. But casting ballots could soon become harder for some people under a proposal to require voters to present photo identification at the polls.
Supporters say requiring photo IDs is prudent to safeguard the state's election system. Twenty-seven other states have laws requiring voters to have identification to cast ballots.
But critics say the bill creates a barrier to voting — particularly for the elderly, young voters, the handicapped and homeless people. The law isn't needed because Maine doesn't have a voter fraud problem, said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
"A voter ID law is expensive, unnecessary and will just make it harder for people to vote," she said.
State Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, said he's sponsoring two bills in the Legislature that go hand-in-hand: the photo ID proposal and another that would require candidates for public office to provide proof of citizenship.
"I believe it's incumbent on the state to do everything it can to verify and secure both who's getting on the ballot as well as who the voters are," Cebra said.
The idea of voter identification has been a hot topic in state legislatures over the past decade. Since 2001, more than 700 bills have been introduced in 46 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A dozen states have passed new voter ID laws since 2003.
Under Cebra's bill — which has 83 co-sponsors, none of whom are Democrats — voters would have to provide a photo ID approved by the secretary of state's office, which would hammer out the final rules. The bill has been taken up by the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.
Secretary of State Charles Summers, who supports the bill, said he favors phasing in the new law over time and allowing a broad selection of acceptable IDs. The state could issue free IDs for people in need, he said.
Nearly everybody is already using IDs in various walks of their lives, Summers said.
"Whether you're talking about going to the airport and showing your ID to get on an airplane, or taking your child to register for Little League and showing a birth certificate, it's something we're fairly used to doing," Summer said. "I think if this tightens the process up and adds a little more security, I don't see that as being a bad thing."
Not everybody's convinced.
Nancy Kelleher, director of the AARP in Maine, said the law will hurt Maine's elderly population. Many elderly people don't have driver's licenses and will find it hard to get a photo ID because they don't have the needed documents, transportation, money or wherewithal.
Nobody wants to prevent voter fraud more than the elderly, who turn out in large numbers at elections, but forcing them to show a photo ID would be overly burdensome, Kelleher said.
"I think this is one of those cases where it may have sounded like a good idea but it has unintended consequences," she said.
Opponents further point out that Maine has had few cases of voter fraud over the years. Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, who oversees election matters, said she knows of only two voter fraud cases in her 16 years in the office.
Both those cases were prosecuted last year after it was discovered that people had voted illegally in two different towns in the same election. In both cases, the voters owned property in both towns and were not trying to influence the outcome of the election.
Maine for years has been known for its liberal election laws and it high voter turnouts.
The state has allowed voters to register by mail for decades and is one of a handful of states that allows people to register at municipal offices, not county offices. Residents are allowed to vote by absentee ballot without giving a reason, and can register at their polling place on Election Day.
Election-day registration could come to an end under another bill that would eliminate same-day voter registration and make people register in person at least a week in advance of an election.
Bellows said Maine should continue removing voting barriers — not adding them.
"We want more Mainers to participate in our elections, not fewer," she said.