AUGUSTA — When Mainers voted last week to overturn the Legislature's repeal of Election Day registration, the state's voting rights debate shifted immediately to LD 199.
The bill, held over from last session, would require voters to show photo identification at the polls. The measure had more than 80 Republican co-sponsors, support that would seem to suggest that Mainers should brace for a debate over voter fraud and disenfranchisement like the one that dominated the months leading up to last week's referendum on EDR.
But there are political considerations that could determine just how hard Republican lawmakers will push LD 199 when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
Voters defeated the EDR repeal 2-to-1. While progressive groups led the coalition for the people's veto effort, the campaign message was designed to appeal to voters of all persuasions. Election Day results suggest that effort was successful, as voters in Republican and Democratic districts statewide supported EDR.
Also, 2012 is an election year, and there are many in the GOP that think it's time to drill into the issues that helped Republicans sweep into power in 2010.
"I would much rather we focus energy on our economic agenda and making the state a better place to do business," Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said. "We only have so much time and energy to get things done, especially in an abbreviated session."
Katz was one of five Republican senators who originally voted against the voter ID bill last session. He said Monday that he had seen little since then to change his mind.
Most GOP lawmakers felt differently about voter ID than Katz. However, his desire to avoid another partisan debate over ballot access may well resonate with members of his party, particularly in an election year.
Meanwhile, Democrats have been advancing a narrative that the GOP majority has spent too little time focusing on the economy because it's looking for an advantage at the ballot box.
Democrats hammered that message during debates over EDR, congressional redistricting and GOP maneuvering to change the state's Clean Election Act.
The fight over voting rights continues to rage nationally. In Washington, D.C., congressional Democrats are calling on the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to hold hearings on the proliferation of new voter laws, arguing that Congress should consider intervening to make sure those laws don't restrict ballot access.
Republicans argue that the new laws are necessary to protect the integrity of the ballot box. Democrats say the bills are designed to curb voting by Democratic-leaning constituencies such as minorities and the poor.
Twenty-seven states have laws requiring voters to have identification to cast ballots. Critics like the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine say the requirement creates barriers for the elderly, young voters, the handicapped and homeless people.
State Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, is the lead sponsor of the photo ID proposal.
"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 earlier this year.
Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, serves on the committee that heard the debates for the EDR repeal and the voter ID.
"The arguments for these proposals were very similar," he said. "It's all about voter fraud. But as we've seen, there's almost no occurrence of fraud in Maine."
He added, "It's confusing to me why some think a national playbook would work in Maine."
Secretary of State Charlie Summers supported LD 199. Summers said last spring that the state could issue free IDs for people in need and allow different forms of acceptable IDs other than driver licenses.
A new voter ID law in Wisconsin is facing a legal challenge. One of the problems, critics say, is that while it technically allows college students to use their school-issued IDs, none of the state's universities or colleges issue IDs that meet the new requirements of the law.
Such cases could become part of the Legislature's debate over LD 199. The intensity of the public battle will depend on how hard the GOP wants to push the issue.
House Speaker Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said last week that the discussion over voter ID should be different than the bill that repealed EDR. Nutting, the lead sponsor of the voter-defeated EDR bill, said it was too early to draw any conclusions from last week's referendum.