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Maine Lawmakers Consider Measures to Expand Early Voting
02/20/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine Lawmakers are considering multiple measures aimed at expanding voting options, including a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow so-called "early voting." Supports say it would ease the burden on local clerks, and offer an alternative to voting absentee. But, as A.J. Higgins reports, some of the proposals before the Veteran's and Legal Affairs Committee are raising concerns about the potential for voter fraud.

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The constitutional amendment proposed by Rep. Michael Shaw of Standish would permit voting in the days just before an election. In a pilot project in 2009, several Maine communities held early voting hours, and Shaw says his constitutional amendment would permit the same practice statewide.

"Many people mistakenly believe that we already have early voting in Maine," Shaw said. "In fact, what we have is a system of in-person absentee voting in which ballots are filled out early and then put aside to be cast by a clerk on Election Day. True early voting would allow people to fill out their ballots before Election Day and cast them immediately."

The proposed bill - which would require two-thirds support in the House and Senate before it could be sent out to a statewide vote - would take some of the burden off local voting clerks, who often have to handle lots of absentee ballot requests close to Election Day.

Standish clerk Mary Chapman says the idea of early voting just seems like another step forward in perfecting the balloting system.

"Not too long ago, a voter would need to actually state the reason as to why they were requesting an absentee ballot - that has gone away," Chapman said. "Recent changes now allow a voter to request an absentee ballot for state and federal elections electronically through e-mail. It's my opinion that early voting is the next change needed to enhance the absentee voting process."

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, says her agency supports early voting, and would like to see the Legislature work out the details of just how many days before an election voting would be allowed.

"True early voting would make the process more direct for the voter, and greatly ease the administrative burden for the clerks," Bellows said. "For those reasons we urge you to vote 'ought to pass.' Let the people decide."

An earlier version of Shaw's bill would have also permitted Maine voters to cast ballots in municipalities other than their home towns. That proposal - should Shaw continue to support it - creates a problem for Newport attorney Josh Tardy, who represented the Maine Municipal Association in opposing the bill.

"You're going to open up claims of voter fraud and put an undue to burden on the municipalities," Tardy said.

Tardy, a former House Republican leader, was challenged on his fraud claim by Rep. Robert Saucier, a Presque isle Democrat.

"Anytime you interject fraud into something, it really raises my eyebrows," Saucier said, "because, you know, it's never been proven and it's just tiresome. That's all I've got to say."

"I would just comment with all due respect, representative, that I think that the Legislature has to deal with a wide range of very important issues, and welcome to the Legislature," Tardy responded.

Committee Senate Chair John Tuttle, a Sanford Democrat, says Shaw's bill could require further scrutiny, and the review might even stretch into the next legislative session. "We could table, or hold them over, we'll see how the committee feels about that," Tuttle said.

The panel also reviewed two other bills that would allow absentee ballots to be cast on, or immediately before, Election Day. But Tuttle says those bills would be unnecessary if there is some support for the constitutional amendment.


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