AUGUSTA — Maine on Friday moved one step closer to passing a law requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls.
A legislative panel voted 6-6 along party lines to recommend LD 199 to the Legislature.
Rep. Micheal Willette, R-Presque Isle, was absent, but he has until Tuesday to vote. Willette is expected to vote with his party, meaning the measure will advance to the Legislature with a divided report.
Twenty-seven other states have photo identification laws. Maine and at least a half-dozen other states are considering legislation that would add the photo requirement.
Supporters say asking voters to show a photo ID at the polls is a way to prevent fraud. Critics, mostly Democrats and civil rights groups, say the requirement impedes voting for the elderly, handicapped, homeless and those who don't drive.
Democrats attempted to make those arguments during a public hearing held earlier this week. On Friday, with the outcome a foregone conclusion, opponents said voter participation would suffer.
"Voting is a sacred right and this proposal would abridge that," Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, said. "We need to be extremely careful about the consequences of proposals like this."
Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said the bill was unnecessary and costly.
During a public hearing earlier this week, Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the Maine proposal attempted to address a nonexistent fraud issue.
Cost and voting convenience were originally concerns for Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, but Secretary of State Charlie Summers said grant money from the Help America Vote Act would likely cover the bill's $69,000 fiscal note.
Additionally, the bill was amended to allow town clerks to sign provisional ballots for voters who forget their IDs during a phase-in period over the next three elections.
Also, the Secretary of State's Office would embark on a voter education tour.
Voter identification has been a hot topic in state legislatures over the past decade. Since 2001, more than 700 bills have been introduced in 46 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A dozen states have passed new voter ID laws since 2003.
The Maine bill sponsored by Rep. Richard Cebra, R-Naples, has 83 co-sponsors. None are Democrats.
Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn, who oversees election matters, said she knew of only two voter fraud cases in her 16 years in office.
Both were prosecuted last year after it was discovered that people had voted illegally in two towns in the same election. In both cases, the voters owned property in both towns.
Maine for years has been known for its liberal election laws and its high voter turnout.
The state has allowed voters to register by mail for decades and is one of a handful of states that allows people to register at municipal offices, not county offices. Residents are allowed to vote by absentee ballot without giving a reason and can register at their polling places on Election Day.
Same-day registration could soon come to an end under a bill proposed by Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls. His bill, which has yet to be heard by the committee, would halt voter registration seven days before an election.
"We want more Mainers to participate in our elections, not fewer," the MCLU's Bellows said.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee unanimously voted down another a bill that would require people running for public office to show proof of citizenship. The bill, also sponsored by Cebra, was supported by Secretary of State Summers.
The committee voted Friday, without discussion, against the legislation.
The unanimous vote means the legislation has little chance of passage. Reviving it would require a two-thirds vote by the Legislature.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.