Every now and then, a commission report comes out that provides solid information and analysis, and helpful recommendations on what state government ought to do.
That’s the case with the Elections Commission appointed by former Secretary of State Charlie Summers last year amid various voting controversies, and received by his successor, Matt Dunlap.
Unaccountably, the report was leaked to the Huffington Post on Tuesday, with the regrettable effect of producing early news stories but no coverage of its actual presentation to the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
But the report is well worth reading, both for its conclusions and the fair-minded way it considers the evidence. If politicians take heed, it should help settle controversies over voter ID, election day registration, and absentee balloting well into the future.
The commission embraces what might seem to be a self-evident truth that, for some reason, isn’t evident to many Republicans: voting is an act of citizenship, citizens should be allowed ready access to voting, and no unnecessary barriers should stand in their way.
Americans vote in smaller numbers than citizens of almost any other major democracy. So it stands to reason that encouraging voters to participate makes more sense than forcing them to obtain photo IDs, register their cars or visit town halls well before the election if they haven’t already registered.
All of these obstacles were advocated by Republican lawmakers two years ago, and several enacted into law.
In November 2011, 60 percent of Maine’s voters served notice that they disapproved of ending election day registration, after which the voter ID bill was quietly shelved.
But not everyone gave up quietly. Before riding off into the sunset, former GOP Chairman Charlie Webster proclaimed on camera, after the Nov. 6 balloting, that “In some parts of rural Maine, there were dozens, dozens of black people who came in and voted on election day.”
This parallels his longstanding claim that labor union members, college students – take your pick -- are “bused in” to change the course of Maine elections. Webster’s final fantasy was so ridiculous that he later apologized, but the suspicion that the “wrong people” are voting has become entrenched many Republicans’ minds.
The commission report gets us back on track. Since there are virtually no cases of voter fraud in Maine, IDs aren’t necessary. The commission also backs early voting – Maine only allows absentee ballots – for which a constitutional amendment would be needed; the Legislature will consider one.
But if Charlie Webster is gone from Maine’s political scene, his spirit lives on elsewhere. Nationally, things have only gotten worse since President Obama was re-elected and, though Democrats won a majority of votes, House Republicans held their majority thanks to newly gerrymandered districts.
Virginia Senate leaders decided to take advantage of the one-day absence of a black senator attending the presidential inauguration to push through a redistricting plan that could have created six new Republican-leaning districts – even though redistricting was settled two years earlier. That proved too much even for the Republican House speaker, who shelved the Senate bill.
Another scheme involves attempts in Republican-controlled states to change the system to allocate Electoral College votes by congressional district, rather than the winner-take-all system used in 48 states. Had it been in place in certain key states, and only those, according to one overheated analysis Mitt Romney might have been elected.
Maine and Nebraska use the congressional district system already, and it hasn’t amounted to much. Maine has never split its electoral vote and it happened in Nebraska only once – in 2008, when Obama picked up one vote.
In larger states, it would be more significant, but so what? Republicans advocating these changes make no pretense that it would better reflect the will of the people. They’re just trying to win elections without a popular majority.
Not surprisingly, voters don’t like these attitudes, and push back. There were vigorous efforts to suppress the black and Hispanic vote in Florida and Ohio, states that in 2000 and 2004 swung elections to George W. Bush. This time, voters were having none of it. They stood in line past midnight to cast their ballots. In the end, in swing states, black turnout was higher than that of whites.
That’s the ultimate answer to attempts to keep people from voting – it doesn’t work. No political party is going to succeed long-term if its goal isn’t to win a majority; that’s done by offering candidates, and ideas, that voters embrace. The sooner Republicans adopt that as their guiding principle, the sooner their electoral fortunes will improve.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.