Thursday, December 5, 2013
Thirty-eight years ago, Mainers were given legal permission to register to vote on the same day as an election.
That won't happen on Election Days in Maine anymore if a new law ends up staying on the books. If you haven't registered by mail at least 21 days before the election or in person at least three days before the election, you won't be allowed to vote.
Supported only by Republicans, the Maine Legislature voted in the majority to enact a bill with the altruistic title, "An Act to Preserve the Integrity of the Voter Registration and Election Process."
The bill eliminates what is referred to as "same-day registration." For each of us who have registered a car a few days late, or have, on occasion, been reminded by a colleague that our car's inspection sticker has expired, then we should have some sympathy for other people who also procrastinate. For most people, it's not because they're being lazy or unorganized, but it's because life requires keeping a lot of balls in the air.
Supporters of eliminating same-day registration cited concern about the workload of municipal clerks and the potential for fraud if the 38-year-old law stayed on the books.
For 12 years of a career that has been in and around public policy for more than 34 years, I represented the concerns of municipal clerks before the Maine Legislature as a lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association. I don't remember that same-day registration was one of their concerns.
The municipal clerks who I knew viewed enabling a citizen's ability to vote as one of the most important aspects of their job. It was a duty performed with officiousness and pride.
And did anybody hear concerns about voter fraud in any campaign speeches last November? Probably not. It isn't a major problem in Maine.
What is different in Maine is the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote. It's always one of the highest in national elections. In the 11 states, and the District of Columbia, that allowed same day registration for the presidential election in 2008, voter turnout was 7 percent higher.
It turns out that new Republican majorities are seeking to do similar things in other states. Efforts are or have been under way recently to require voters to have identification cards at polling places, to limit the time of early voting, to make it more difficult for third parties to register new voters and, yes, to eliminate same-day registration.
The new Republican majority in Maine prevailed in its attempt to eliminate same-day registration, which will result in votes being suppressed.
It's difficult not to wonder whether that was the real purpose of the bill, since overworked municipal clerks didn't seek the change and zealous public prosecutors weren't citing rampant voter fraud.
The chairman of the Republican Party in Maine actually gave voice to the fear that elections were being stolen by Democrats because of same-day registration.
Fear is what the change seems to be based on. Fear that some segment of the electorate can't be trusted with the franchise and should have their voice silenced.
Democrats weren't accused of doing anything illegal, just of somehow getting procrastinating future voters to the polls on Election Day to both register and, it seems, vote for them.
A quick review of conservative blogs easily reveals that students on college campuses are the voters who Republicans fear most, and therefore are the ones whose votes need to be suppressed. Younger voters have historically voted more heavily for Democrats. Next November, some 18-years-olds across the state won't be able to vote because they didn't focus on the election soon enough.
Other potential voters will get snared as well. The new resident who just barely had time in one of life's most stressful transitions to get their electricity connected and forwarding address forms from the post office might be one of them.
The right to vote is central to the independence we'll be celebrating all across America on Monday. It's shameful that it will be lost to some because life got in the way, and they showed up too late to register as a voter in Maine.
Kay Rand is former chief of staff for Maine independent Gov. Angus King.