Voting wrongs and rights

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There he goes again. Gov. Paul LePage, must be trying to seal his reputation as the governor who passed on the opportunity to make the largest change in Maine’s direction, just so he can vent his spleen at people who disagree with him.

LePage is nothing if not dogged. This week, he said he would reintroduce a bill to require any voter to have a valid photo ID card. An identical bill was soundly defeated by the Legislature in 2017. LePage is reopening a pointless effort even though a study in 2012 showed no evidence of voter fraud in Maine.

Well, no one ever accused LePage of not wanting to fix something that wasn’t broken.

Not that there aren’t problems in our voting system, but people voting illegally isn’t among them. A far bigger problem is people’s votes vaporizing in the cloud over the Kremlin or simply disappearing without a trace in the electronic voting systems that have replaced paper ballots in many states. In 15 states, there is no paper trail to trace all ballots in case of doubt. Twelve of the 15, by the way, voted for Trump.

The guv is following the lead of the kookiest end of his party, which was my party until the kooks took over. The Heritage Foundation, which has joined the Republican lurch to the right, cited what it called 1,071 claims of voter fraud in 2016. In many cases, it cited no evidence or reported that police officers were, ahem, “investigating” complaints. In no instance did it find people who had voted illegally. None of the 1,071 was in Maine.

PolitiFact has reported four confirmed cases of voter fraud in 2016. A woman in Iowa tried to cast two ballots. For Trump. A Texan claimed he was testing the integrity of the voting system on behalf of the Trump campaign by voting twice. A Republican election judge in Illinois filled in her husband’s absentee ballot after he died. A ballot clerk in Illinois, as she tallied, was filling in blank ballots for a mayoral candidate she favored.

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That’s it. Four. Out of 137 million votes cast. Even if all the 1,071 cases claimed by the Heritage kooks turned out to be fraud, that comes to 0.78 votes per 100,000 votes cast, or eight per million. So far, I can find no others confirmed or that have led to charges.

Can you say much ado about very little?

LePage isn’t whistling alone in the dark. His party’s state chairman in 2012 said, “In some parts of the state, there were dozens of black people who came in to vote.” That would be Charlie Webster, now chair of the board of county commissioners in Franklin County. Don’t even ask why Webster believes black folks going to the polls is evidence of fraud. His explanation was, “If you lived in a small town, you would know that if [an unfamiliar] black person or Chinese person comes to vote, it would seem odd.”

In an earlier election, Webster had claimed that bus loads of college students were being driven to the polls. In Farmington, where Webster lives, UMF students need only to walk a block to the polls, a block closer than Webster lives. So why rent a bus?

And they are voting there legally, so long as they don’t also vote anywhere else. Even with the short school year used by the University of Maine System, college students live in their school town for 30 weeks a year. Courts have time and again ruled that a student lives where she says she lives, but in that one place only.

By far the larger issue is the security and sanctity of the ballot box. In those 15 states without a paper trail, no one can check the ballots.

Maine used to encourage voting, and there were checks against fraud. One was that, in small towns, we were greeted at the polls by election judges who knew us and whom we knew. That could happen in cities, too, if voting were by precinct rather than citywide, as in Bangor. Another check on fraud was the paper ballot. When it is written down, it can be counted as often as necessary.

Election night used to be a big deal for a few of us in our town. The town clerk had called around, collecting volunteers to count ballots. Sometimes, we were three teams of four, sometimes four teams of five, doing the nitty-gritty of democracy. We worked with red pens, one person reading the votes on each ballot and the other three tallying on pages marked in grids. Every time a candidate reached an interval of five votes — four vertical strokes on the sheet crossed by a diagonal stroke — tallyers said “check.” If not all three tallyers said “check,” we retotaled and corrected our counts so all tally sheets agreed.

New Sharon now counts ballots electronically. The ballot judges include a machine watcher who tells you how to put your ballot into the machine, in case you forgot how to read from the time you marked your ballot to the time you took it to the machine that has a large sign stating, “Insert ballot here.”

I hope this doesn’t morph into paperless ballots.

Ballot counting came about twice a year, rarely more often, and on average a dozen or so of us got together as a small community and helped in a small-community way to make democracy work. Nowadays? Ballot counters and their community are no longer needed.

My interest in voting began in 1964 when I was an election judge in New York City. At the end of the night, the four judges walked behind the voting machines. Two read numbers off a mechanical counter, two wrote down the numbers. Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater, but not by so much as he carried the rest of New York. I wondered then what would happen if anyone challenged that result. There was no paper to check.

I still worry that too often there is no way to confirm or refute vote totals. That’s the real question, to me, the question about the security and sanctity of the ballot.

Bob Neal is no Luddite, but he still prefers paper ballots that can be checked. And checked again, when need be.

Bob Neal

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