Jared Golden seeks to make voter registration ‘automatic’

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AUGUSTA — Hoping to boost voter registration, a Lewiston Democrat wants to add anyone doing business with the Department of Motor Vehicles to the voter rolls automatically.

Rep. Jared Golden, the Democratic whip, told colleagues that Maine has one of the highest voter participation rates in the country but could get more people to the polls if more were registered.

An easy way to do that, he said, is to sign them up when they are doing business with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. His bill would allow people to opt out, but other states have found that few do.

Already in effect in eight states — including two in New England, Vermont and Connecticut — the process flips the existing process where people have to go out of their way to register to make it so that most would now have to decline to be registered if they don’t want the chance to vote.

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That change bothers some.

The Maine Municipal Association’s policy committee may be old-fashioned, but its members “hold the belief that people should wish to be registered to vote by their own reckoning and should be required to take at least one small affirmative step in order to effect that interest before being registered,” said Geoff Herman, the association’s director of state and federal relations.

But supporter Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said the measure “aims to streamline the process of voter registration by reducing administrative headaches and simplifying the paperwork while increasing civic participation in our electoral system.”

“What better way to ease the process of registering to vote and empower stronger civic participation in the electoral process than automatically registering all eligible Maine residents to vote when they apply for or renew a driver’s license or state-issued ID?” Chenette asked legislators on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee recently.

The secretary of state’s office supports the concept, but asked legislators to give it time to review the many technical details in the bill’s language and required procedural revisions. The Maine Town and City Clerks Association took no position but asked legislators to give officials a few years to work out how to implement it.

One of the advantages of the proposed new registration option is that it allows states to use electronic data from the motor vehicles office to identify voters and update their addresses automatically when people move.

Herman said that also irked his association’s officials who felt that “to have your personally identifying information filed into a separate and unrelated governmental registry when obtaining a driver’s license without your express and unambiguous permission” would be inappropriate.

Ann Luther, a Trenton resident who serves on the advocacy committee of the League of Women Voters of Maine, said the initial move toward greater participation in elections is to increase registration.

Automatic registration, she said, “will make it easier for many eligible Maine citizens to take that first step to get registered to vote. This one improvement will make registering easier for Maine people, will reduce the potential for errors in the voting rolls, and will ultimately save money and time at all levels of the
election process.”

“This bill should not be controversial,” said Richard Bissell of Bangor. “It’s a common sense, modern approach to make the lives of Mainers easier.”

“The history of voting rights includes big leaps like giving people of color and women the right to vote, and it’s time we take this small, sensible step in the direction of ensuring that our democracy is more inclusive, fair and secure,” he said.

Doris Meehan of Windham offered a different take to lawmakers.

If the idea is turned into law, she said in an email to the committee, “the opportunities for misinformation and abuse are innumerable.”

Worse, though, is that “the sacred right to vote that has been so revered in our nation will become nothing more than a right to ‘opt out’ of being registered to vote,” she wrote.

Others said, though, that voting is so central to the American experience that officials should do what they can to make it easier and more widespread.

The advocacy director for American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Oami Amarasingham, said that “as a strong democracy that wishes to remain strong, we should seek ways to encourage more Americans to vote and eradicate unnecessary limits placed on participation in the process.”

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