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Move to Eliminate Maine's Same Day Voter Registration Law Draws Protests
06/13/2011   Reported By: Tom Porter

A bill to do away with same-day voter registration in Maine is expected to be signed into law this week. The measure gained legislative approval late Friday night after a long and heated debate in the state Senate. Supporters claim it will safeguard against voter fraud and make life easier for overworked municipal clerks on Election Day. But civil liberties groups say the law will disenfranchise thousands of Maine voters.

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LD 1376 was approved by the state Senate on Friday night after a lengthy, and at times emotional, debate--none more emotional than Brunswick Democrat Stan Gerzofsky.

"And people can walk out of this room tonight if they don't want to hear the truth. That's fine with me. But my voice isn't going to get lower because you're doing it. It'll get louder, and louder, and louder," he shouted, to the bang of a gavel. "Mister Chair, I'm sorry I'm yelling."

Democrats had been angered by comments made by Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster, who reportedly accused Democrats of stealing some elections by busing in unregistered voters on Election Day.

Sen. Justin Alfond is a Portland Democrat. He says the impending passage of LD 1376 will disenfranchise thousands of Mainers. "It strikes at the heart of what makes Maine one of the greatest states in this country--our participation," Alfond said.

"To listen to this debate one would think that we were on the verge of taking away a God-given right, carved on the tablet by Moses as the 11th Commandment," said Republican Senate President Kevin Raye, of Perry. Raye pointed out that 42 states have also outlawed same-day voter registration.

"I heard the good Senator from Cumberland, Senator Alfond, read into the record, 'It's a heinous act.' A heinous Act--give me a break," Raye said. "If this were such a heinous act, if this were such an outrage, if this were such a disenfranchisement of the right to vote, 42 other states would have revolted, long ago."

He took issue with the claim that LD 1376 disenfranchses thousands of Mainers. "This bill disenfranchises not a single Maine person from voting," he said. "Not one person is prevented from registering or voting."

Mainers have been able to register on Election Day for 38 years. And in 2008 more than 50,000 Mainers did just that.

"We're very disappointed that the Legislature would take this step of passing LD 1376," says Alysia Melnick, a public policy counsel for the Maine Civil Liberties Union. "People are very comfortable and very used to Election Day registration, having that option. And I think for many people that are full-time workers, having that option to go a little early on Election Day, or go a little bit late, to times when in some counties the clerks offices are open very, very limited hours, really affords them the opportunity to actually engage in the electoral process."

Melnick says data from the last election shows that of those voters who registered on Election Day, more enrolled as Republican than Democrats. But she admits less is known about the likely voting habits of the many more same-day voters who did not enroll with either party.

Fraud is another issue. Supporters of the bill claim it will prevent it, but the MCLU's Alysia Melnick says Election Day fraud has only happened twice in 38 years in Maine.

LD 1376's proponents, such as Kennebec Republican Earle McCormick, also say the measure will ease the workloads of municipal clerks on Election Day. "I can assure you of the 11 municipalities I represent, and spend all of Election Days with, there will be at least five of those clerks cheering that they do not have to deal with the burden of these same-day registrations."

But the Maine Town and City Clerks Association does not support the bill's goal of ending same-day voter registration. Association President Patti Dubois, who's also the Bangor city clerk, says she's concerned about the 2012 elections.

"A lot of folks only vote once evey four years, so this law will be brand new to a lot of voters next year. So of course I'm concerned about issues at the polls and the possibility of disenfranchising some voters," she says. "I'm hopeful we can do a pretty decent public outreach to get the information out to the voters between now and then."

Not all of Maine's municipal clerks are against the measure. Dubois says clerks in the college town of Orono are in favor. She says Election Day can be a real headache for clerks because so many students typically register to vote at the last minute.



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