AUGUSTA — A bill that threatened to reignite last year's heated debate over voting rights appears to be heading to the legislative attic, at least for another year.
Lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday tabled a voter identification bill and expressed willingness to gut the proposal and replace its language with a resolve directing the Secretary of State's Office to propose voter reform legislation next year.
The initiative follows a report by Secretary of State Charlie Summers that suggests nonresidents have voted in Maine elections.
The committee's decision is not final, because of procedural matters that took place Wednesday. However, if the voter ID bill is indeed replaced with a resolve, it will mean lawmakers will avoid the partisan blow-up that took place last year when the Republican majority attempted to repeal Maine's Election Day voter registration law.
The Legislature's repeal came amid rejections from some Republicans, who initially voted against the measure but were eventually convinced by party leaders to support it. Several of those lawmakers, most in the state Senate, have since indicated that they would not support a voter ID law this year.
That political reality could mean that Maine, at least for now, will avoid the debate over voter ID that has raged in several other states, including New Hampshire.
Advocates for voter ID say the initiative has polled well in Maine and elsewhere and would ensure that only legal residents vote in state elections. Opponents, however, say voter ID requirements are constructed in such a way that they make it more difficult for college students, the poor and the elderly to vote.
Lawmakers avoided that debate Tuesday and instead focused on an annual report by Summers that suggests more than 150 noncitizens may have registered to vote over the past few years. Summers said about one-third of those individuals may have voted.
The findings are a stark contrast from Summers' 2011 review of the Central Voter Registration system. Last year, he reported that he had the utmost confidence in the integrity of the CVR.
Summers said he was troubled by his yearlong review of the voter-registration data. However, he acknowledged that many of the issues his review uncovered may have been due to errors by town clerks, not fraudulent activity.
Summers has turned over his nonresident findings to the attorney general for further investigation.
Summers is obligated by law to submit the report, which assesses the state’s CVR system. However, Summers asked lawmakers Tuesday to direct his office to perform a thorough review and to report back to the next Legislature with reform legislation.
If lawmakers follow through on their comments Wednesday, that directive will be inserted into LD 199, the voter ID bill. The voter ID language will stripped.
Although that move would seem to put an end to the voter ID debate, some wondered why Summers would need a year to act on the deficiencies he discovered in his report.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said her group applauded lawmakers' apparent rejection of voter ID, but opposed "turning bad policy into a vague study group" that could later be used to reintroduce barriers to voters.
"We feel very strongly that the secretary of state can and should address any problems in the Central Voter Registration now," Bellow said.
She added, "He has the legal responsibility to ensure that the (CVR) clearly reflects voters who are eligible to vote. And he has the legal authority to remove voters that should not be eligible to vote."