Same-day voter registration worked, pushing Maine to the top for voter participation.
I was working in the Attorney General’s Office as an assistant attorney general in 1973 when the bipartisan Legislature passed same-day voter registration, allowing voters to register to vote on Election Day. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Elden Shute, R-Farmington, who had previously served as deputy secretary of state.
The vote was unanimous because everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, thought it important to make it as easy as possible for Maine people to exercise their fundamental constitutional right to vote.
It was a proud moment, representing our proud bipartisan tradition of working together to expand and protect the people’s constitutional rights.
Same-day voter registration has been working well for almost 40 years. Maine elections have been conducted with integrity and with some of the highest rates of voter participation in the country. There have been only two cases of voter fraud during that time.
When the federal government passed the Help America Vote Act, Maine was exempt from some of federal mandates because of same-day voter registration and the success in making voting widely accessible to all populations.
Unfortunately, the Legislature narrowly passed a law in the past session that would require voters to register to vote ahead of time.
Now, the people have a chance to set things right by voting “yes” on Question 1 to preserve same-day voter registration.
Common sense alone indicates that if people have to register ahead of time, inevitably, some people will be prevented from voting.
The AARP and the Disability Rights Center testified about how difficult it is for seniors and people with disabilities to make the trip to register in person ahead of time and then vote on Election Day.
The League of Young Voters testified about the impact on young people who are highly mobile. Academic research supports common sense and the testimony of these groups.
CalTech and MIT published a study in 2009 that suggested same-day voter registration is the single best way to increase broad voter participation in elections.
So why on Earth would this Legislature want to make it more difficult for average Mainers to vote?
Opponents of Election Day registration argue that this is necessary to make it easier for clerks to administer elections. I have the highest regard for the town clerks, who do a wonderful job running Maine’s elections, and I have not heard complaints from clerks that same-day registration causes any problems.
So it is distressing to hear politicians arguing that we should sacrifice our fundamental constitutional rights for some unsubstantiated bureaucratic convenience. The constitutional rights of the many should never be sacrificed for the preference of the few.
But it is even more upsetting to find that the clerks testified at the public hearing that they would be comfortable keeping same-day voter registration.
We certainly should not pursue such a dramatic change to our voting process if the clerks don’t even support it.
The fact is, if we do not fix this law now, clerks will have to deal with angry voters on Election Day who have always assumed they can update their address or register to vote on Election Day. Clerks will have to deal with angry voters who are mistakenly purged from the rolls and who can no longer correct that mistake on Election Day, if the majority doesn’t vote yes on Question 1 on Nov. 8.
Clerks may also have to deal with angry taxpayers. Eliminating same-day registration and implementing a complicated new system places new financial costs on municipalities.
By eliminating same-day voter registration, the state of Maine and municipalities must comply with the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act.
Compliance with HAVA means a new provisional balloting system that clerks will have to offer with a complicated, federally mandated process for ballot verification and processing of these new provisional ballots.
It is difficult to imagine that the new federal process of provisional balloting would be less of a burden on clerks or better for the integrity of our system. Perhaps that is why the Maine Municipal Association endorsed Yes on 1.
Maine should be proud of the efforts that began with Republicans in 1973 to improve the state’s voting system and make voter participation easier in important elections.
Same-day voter registration has worked. Maine had the highest level of voter participation in the country in 2010.
That is why I am voting “yes” on Question 1 on Nov. 8 to keep same-day voter registration.
John Paterson is a lawyer in Portland with Bernstein, Shur and president of the ACLU of Maine. He lives in Freeport.