LEWISTON — A coalition of progressive groups and other advocates on Friday kicked off their effort to restore Maine's 38-year-old same-day voter registration law.
The petition-gathering events were held in Lewiston, Portland and Bangor, two days after Secretary of State Charles Summers approved wording for a people’s veto referendum question designed to repeal a provision in the law recently enacted by the 125th Legislature that ended Maine’s practice of allowing people to register to vote on Election Day.
The highly partisan bill was signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage and requires people to register at least 48 hours before Election Day. Republicans and Summers said the law was designed to ease the burden on town clerks on Election Day.
Democrats have said the law is part of a national Republican effort to deny ballot access to voters who, they say, tend to vote for Democrats, such as young and poor people. Republicans, primarily through Maine GOP Party Chairman Charlie Webster, counter that the law is important to prevent voter fraud and what Webster described as past "poll-flooding" by Democrats.
Members of the veto coalition had hoped to steer clear of a fight with Webster and the Maine GOP. They argued Friday that their goal is to ensure that all Mainers have the opportunity to vote.
However, Webster's increasing allegations of fraud, and who would be affected by the law, was clearly on organizers' minds Friday.
"It's politics at its worst," said Don Berry, president of the Maine AFL-CIO, a member of the coalition. "People being alienated are going to be on the Democratic side, for the most part."
Michelle Small of the Maine League of Women Voters said the new law would most affect the young and the poor.
"The Census Bureau tells us that one in six people move every year," Small said. "That's primarily the young and economically disadvantaged. I think we're going to see elderly people hurt, particularly those who have moved to retirement communities who haven't had a chance to register yet."
Webster last month told the Portland Press Herald that Democrats have used same-day voter registration to "steal elections." On Friday, Webster said he was gathering evidence that would show that voter fraud, particularly in districts containing college campuses, was rampant in the state.
He said the fraud was so rampant that he was considering petitioning the governor to push back the registration window even further than the new law, which is currently two business days before an election.
Webster said that over the years, Democrats have deployed buses of college students to the polls. He said in some cases the out-of-state students would vote in their home states and in Maine.
"I've witnessed busloads of people coming. I've seen it in Farmington," said Webster. "I hear about it all the time. Town clerks have called me."
Webster said the new law was required to make sure people don't vote twice.
"You can't be a Maine resident for a day," he said.
Small said Webster's comments were unfounded.
"I don't take Charlie Webster too seriously, but it's perfectly legal for college students to vote in the towns where they go to college," Small said. "They're doing nothing wrong."
David Farmer, a spokesman for the coalition, said that both parties have poll watchers who would report the activity that Webster was describing if it were occurring.
"If (Webster) or anyone else were aware of wrongdoing, why are they just now coming forward in the heat of a political campaign?" Farmer said. "They didn't present that evidence in their testimony before the Legislature. In fact, they grasped for their rationale."
Summers, one of the leading advocates for the law, told the Sun Journal on April 30 the bill was designed to "protect the integrity of voting" by alleviating pressure on town clerks on Election Day. He said the bill "has nothing to do with voter fraud," an issue that has yielded only two prosecutions in Maine history.
However, since then, Webster and others have repeatedly pointed to voter fraud as the impetus for the law.
Paperwork to initiate a people’s veto of that law was submitted on June 21 by Barbara McDade, president of the League of Women Voters of Maine, and five other signers.
Organizers have until Aug. 8 to collect and verify more than 57,000 petitions to get it on the November ballot.
The veto effort specifically targets the law's removal of same-day voter registration. It does not affect the law's language that prohibits absentee voting within two business days of Election Day.
The latter issue prompted the Maine Town & City Clerks' Association to endorse the new law, as several clerks complained that absentee voting created a burden on Election Day.
The association said it did not support a repeal of same-day voter registration.
Several organizations are spearheading the veto effort, which will operate under the political action committee Protect Maine Votes.
The organizations include Engage Maine, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, Maine League of Conservation Voters, League of Women Voters of Maine, Maine AFL-CIO, Maine League of Young Voters, Maine People’s Alliance, Opportunity Maine, Maine Equal Justice Partners, EqualityMaine, Maine Women’s Lobby, Maine Education Association, MSEA-SEIU, Speaking Up for Us, the Disability Rights Center, Preble Street Resource Center and Homeless Voices for Justice.