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Maine Early Voting Bill Wins Initial House Approval
01/30/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A measure that would permit Maine voters to hand in their ballots before election day received majority backing in the Maine House today, but fell short of the two-thirds support required by the full Legislature to be put out to referendum. The constitutional amendment does not specify how early voters would be able to cast their ballots, and many Republicans oppose the measure for that reason. A.J. Higgins reports has more.

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Maine is one of nearly 30 states that allow so-called absentee voting, a process that allows ballots to be cast before Election Day - but which requires more work for local elections officials.

A bill that's once again before the Legislature would allow early voting without that time-consuming process. It comes in the form of a constitution amendment, and so would require two-thirds support in the House and Senate in order to go out for voter approval.

The change was recommended by a state commission created two years ago by then-Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers. Rep. Louis Luchini, an Ellsworth Democrat, reminded colleagues of the commission's findings.

"First of all, the pilot projects have been very successful in the state, both in 2007 and 2009. Nearly all testimony received was positive," Luchini said. "It's likely that early voting will increase turnout at our elections and it would relieve municipal officials of the burden related to handling the absentee ballots."

But the bill doesn't actually specify how early the voting could take place, and that sticks in the craw of many Republicans who have historically favored same-day voting.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, of Newport, says Democrats seem to want to do away with the idea of Election Day and promote a system that would favor urban centers with access to newer and quicker forms of balloting over small rural Maine towns, where many votes are still counted by hand.

Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, pointed out that election laws have changed over the years, citing women's right to vote. Fredette responded this way.

"I would like to thank Rep. Russell for her comments regarding extending the right to vote to women, which has also been extended to many other people including convicted felons - convicted murderers even get the right to vote in our state," Fredette said.

Fredette said later that he was only trying to show that while voting laws changed for the better with women's suffrage, other changes did not improve the system. Political observers say Democrats have traditionally done a better job at getting the vote out than the GOP, and that may be another reason why Republicans fear the change could be to their disadvantage.

And Republicans aren't alone in their opposition. Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler narrowly lost his bid for the Blaine House four years ago. He says that was due to absentee voters who indicated they would have changed their vote and backed him - if they could have.

"Yes, we want voting to be convenient, but I don't think we need it to be eight weeks ahead of time," Cutler says.

Voters would not be allowed to change their early vote under the current proposal, which lawmakers approved by a vote of 92-56 - nine votes short of the two-thirds vote threshold that will eventually be needed for passage. More votes are slated in both the House and Senate.


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