Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King outside the Margaret Chase Smith Museum in Skowhegan in August.  Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Maine’s U.S. senators have taken starkly opposed positions on strengthening voting rights and access in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Sen. Susan Collins joined all her Republican colleagues to block action on the Freedom to Vote Act on Wednesday, a day after independent Sen. Angus King warned his colleagues that “the fate of the American Experiment” in democratic self-governance was at stake.

The legislation – co-sponsored by King, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and others – needed 10 Republican votes to proceed to debate in the Senate, which is divided 50-50 between the parties, but none broke ranks to allow the measure to be discussed.

The bill would have set nationwide standards for mail-in and early voting; made Election Day a national holiday; extended financial reporting requirements for certain organizations; created a standard for states that require identification to vote; restored voting rights to felons on their release; required that voting machines have paper trails; and protected local elections officials from being removed for partisan reasons.

The bill came to a vote as many Republican-controlled state legislatures have moved to make voting more difficult and in the aftermath of Trump’s efforts to pressure state and local officials to overturn the results of elections he had lost. On Jan. 6, Trump encouraged protesters to march on the Capitol, which they sacked in an attempt to disrupt Congress’ ceremonial certification of President Biden’s victory.

Collins wasn’t available for an interview Thursday but provided a written statement slamming the bill as “a vast federal takeover of state elections.”

“This bill would force extensive changes to Maine’s election laws, even though Maine consistently rates as one of the top states in voter participation,” she wrote. “It would gut many states’ voter ID laws, force Americans to subsidize the campaigns of millionaire political candidates for the House whom they do not want to win, and impose questionable election administration requirements that would lead to confusion, delay and distrust in our elections.”

She also suggested the measures were unnecessary to protect democracy because Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act still prohibits “voting practices and procedures that are discriminatory” and is enforceable by the Justice Department.

King, who also was unavailable for an interview Thursday, issued a statement after the vote expressing his alarm at his Republican colleagues’ refusal to even debate the bill and warning that American democracy is in grave danger.

“Our rare, delicate experiment is not guaranteed; it relies on each successive generation of Americans working to preserve and defend the flame of democracy. The system cannot run on autopilot, particularly as we navigate difficult terrain,” King said in the statement, which came a day after he gave a speech on the Senate floor warning that they stood at a “hinge of history” in which “the fate of the American experiment hangs in the balance.”

King also suggested he would support a suspension of the filibuster rule to allow voter rights legislation to pass over Republican opposition.

“I want a compromise, first and foremost,” King said in his statement. “But absent that, I am open to protecting our democratic system of government through structural reforms that ensure that we protect ballot access for all of our citizens. Our elections are the backbone of America’s democracy – and that democracy is more important than any Senate rule.”

Maine’s senior elections official, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, said Maine would have seen few significant changes if the measure had become law, as much of it is actually modeled on Maine’s practices.

“We think the Freedom to Vote Act builds on what Maine does so well to make sure Americans across the country have the same ability to make their voices heard as Mainers do,” Bellows said. A former executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Bellows was Collins’ Democratic opponent in the 2014 election.

“We’re at a time when we see active voter suppression in so many states that we need federal standards to ensure every American has the equal right to vote,” Bellows added.

Edward Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University’s law school, said the stakes were high. “There’s a serious threat to our democratic process that Congress needs to address,” he said.

He disagreed with Collins’ assessment that the 1965 Voting Rights Act – whose powers were scaled back by Supreme Court decisions in recent years that reduced federal oversight of election practices in former slave states with a history of violent voter suppression – was sufficient to protect the integrity of elections. “It would be a reasonable thing for Congress to do to update the Voting Rights Act, and it would be desirable if it was bipartisan,” Foley said.

“Voting rights have been a bipartisan issue back to 1965,” he said. “There ought to be a way to come up with a middle ground that could reach 60 votes, but it seems to be very hard to get to 60 in the Senate.”

Asked if there were election reform measures she would support, Collins’ spokesperson sent a written statement saying she supported “efforts to disclose ‘dark money’ in campaigns,” making it mandatory for campaigns to report to the FBI if a foreign government offered them assistance, and grants to states to shore up their voting systems against cyber attack.

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