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Maine Senate Advances Early Voting Bill
02/11/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Maine voters may soon have more convenient ways to cast their ballots, according to supporters of a bill approved in the Senate today. In-person early voting is intended to increase participation, as well as give a break to town clerks who face stacks of absentee ballots every election. But opponents say Maine already provides plenty of opportunity to vote early. Patty Wight reports.

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Maine has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country - hovering near 70 percent in the 2010 and 2012 elections. But Democratic Sen. Geoff Gratwick says that's still not enough.

"I think everybody should vote - we need 100 percent of people voting," he said, "and I think this is a step in that direction."

That step is a bipartisan bill that would allow early in-person voting. Maine currently allows absentee voting, where voters can request a ballot three months before an election. But that hasn't eliminated long lines on Election Day, and counting all those absentee ballots creates a big burden for some town clerks, according to Democratic Sen. John Patrick.

"In some municipalities, absentee ballots constitute up to 60 percent of the ballots cast," he said. "And because these require special handling by election officials, they are extremely labor intensive."

The bill before the Senate on Tuesday would allow early ballots to be counted as soon as they're cast. But the bill doesn't specify exactly how early they will be accepted, and Republican Sen. Garrett Mason worries Election Day in Maine could change to election week - or month.

"We're talking about having Election Day every day for an extended period of time," he said. "We have to think about locking up and securing the ballots every night, over a weekend. I mean, the possibilities of ballots being tampered with is very high."

And when Mason considers the resources it would take to provide early voting, he doesn't see how it would ease the burden on strapped town clerks. Given the dubious benefits, Mason questions approving a bill that requires a change to Maine's Constitution.

"Amending the Constitution is a solemn occasion, and we should be confident and sure about additions," he said. "It's our job as legislators to vet amendments, and then if they pass muster, send them to the voters for their judgment. I don't believe that this amendment passes that test."

Twenty-eight other states, along with the District of Columbia, allow early in-person voting. It's a method that the Commission to Study Conduct Elections in Maine, appointed by former Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers, supported in 2013.

The bill received a 21-14 initial vote in the Senate and has yet to be considered by the House. It requires a two-thirds majority in each body before it can be sent to Maine voters, who would have the final say in a statewide referendum.



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