LEWISTON — More than three dozen people showed up at Lewiston High School Thursday night to have their say on proposed changes to the way Mainers vote.
Many said they don't like the proposals to require all voters to carry identification and to change the ability to register on Election Day. Further tinkering with the system will solve few problems, they said, and will inhibit many from casting their votes at all.
The bottom line, they said, is that more people should be encouraged to take part in the elections. Not fewer.
"One hundred percent of our legitimate citizens should be registered," Richard Grandmaison of Lewiston said. "And we should encourage them to vote."
Before a commission assembled to study the way Maine elections work, the people expressed what proved to be an almost universal opinion: Maine lawmakers should not implement changes that will turn voters away from the polls. They worry that people, such as senior citizens, college students and new U.S. citizens, might not exercise their right to vote if too many hardships are put in their way.
"Our democracy," Jim Lysen of Lewiston said, "depends on people voting."
Lysen is involved with several groups, including the Maine People's Alliance. Election officials in Maine already do a terrific job of ensuring the integrity of voting, he said. He called the proposed changes "a solution in search of a problem."
College students need to know they're a part of the local government, even when they are in school, Lysen said. Same with Somali immigrants, who now make up 12 percent of the local population.
"More and more become eligible to vote each year," he said. "We can't make it more difficult for them to vote."
Some of those who spoke before the panel were affiliated with local politicians, state or town offices and voter rights groups. Others were just average men and women who came to share their thoughts.
They scoffed at the assertion that voter fraud is rampant, a claim made by supporters of voter ID and other changes to the system.
"In all my life, I have never seen someone impersonate somebody else in order to vote," Andy Barber of Woolwich said. "If it has happened, it must have been just a handful of cases."
Donald Stover of Poland agreed. He has been actively voting for 56 years, he said.
"I have seen no evidence that there has been any significant voter fraud in this state," he said. Until evidence to the contrary is offered up, "let's let the people vote."
The crowd was diverse. Some were young, just old enough to vote. Others were well past retirement age. Some came with prepared notes; ot0hers spoke off the cuff.
In the history of the U.S., Stover said, there have been two attempts to thwart people from voting. The first was the Jim Crow laws, enacted between 1876 and 1967.
"The other such time," said Stover, "is right now."
Each speaker was limited to five minutes to state his or her case. The hearing was structured and orderly, the fifth of its kind conducted around the state as the five-member commission seeks public input before reporting back to Secretary of State Charles E. Summers Jr. in February.
Several people broached the importance of protecting voter rights for college students and seniors, groups who may have a greater degree of difficulty getting registered, getting IDs in order and getting to the polls.
The college students, however, didn't need others to speak on their behalf. Three of them were there to express their concerns on their own.
"I feel very much a part of the community of Lewiston," Eliza Kaplan of the Bates College Democrats said. She spends much more of her time here than in her hometown in western Massachusetts, Kaplan said. She wants to be a part of the voting process.
What's more, said Joshua Manson, also of Bates, things like Election Day registration and absentee ballots are crucial for students who typically have very little time to spare.
"I really think it's essential that I can participate in my government," Manson said. "I think that college students are among the most energetic, enthused and aware people in the country."
Sally Hebert, deputy clerk for Greene, said she has seen plenty of fraud in the matter of petitions. In actual voting? Not so much.
Still, the system of voting, here and elsewhere, will need to be modernized sooner or later, John Smith of Brunswick said. But requiring voter ID and making drastic changes to same-day voting and absentee ballots "are exactly the opposite of modernization."
Voting, Jim Parakilas of Lewiston said, "gives me a very big sense of being part of this community. The government should not be an obstacle to that."
If there was dissent, it was mild. Robert Soucy, a 79-year-old Lewiston man and former police officer, said if voter ID became a requirement, he would comply no matter what it took. Others manage to get government benefits like Section 8 or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, he said. Why couldn't they put the same effort into getting the proper identification to maintain their voting rights?
"ID is very important," Soucy said.
But there was no hostility in his argument. Like many others, Soucy said he was honored to cast his vote and to live in a place where voting is a passionately defended right.
"I'm very proud to be an American. I'm very proud to vote," Soucy said. "I will always vote for the better man, whoever he may be."
Rep. Mike Carey stressed the importance of a clean election system where everyone who wants to vote is able to, which ensures that no matter who wins and who loses, it reflects the wishes of the people.
"There is a certain serenity," Carey said, "in knowing that it was the choice of the people."
Maine typically has a higher voter turnout than most states. Some at the hearing worry that dramatic changes to the system might reverse that trend.
"It's obvious," Tom Reynolds of Lewiston said, "that Mainers take great responsibility and pride in their process."
Summers, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, is a backer of voter ID. In May, he appointed the Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine. The results of the public hearings, and any recommended legislation, will be reported to the Joint Standing Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs of the 126th Legislature.
Commission members include former Superior Court Judge John Atwood; attorney and former Bangor Mayor Larry Willey; Tim Wilson, special advisor to Seeds of Peace and director of its Maine Seeds Program; Linda Cohen, former city clerk for both Portland and South Portland; and former U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby.
"Early on, we decided we could not do this alone," Atwood told those who showed up at the hearing. "We value what you have to offer."