Posted by Russell Daniels on April 15, 2021 at 11:22 AM
Our View: Keep Maine in the forefront of state election practices
Two bills before lawmakers in Augusta – one for online voter registration, and the other for open primaries – will promote voting.
In Maine, we take the right to vote seriously. Whether it’s an annual town meeting or a presidential election, Mainers have a time-honored tradition of turning out and being heard.
We have been able to maintain that tradition by consistently modernizing our election laws to meet the needs of a changing electorate. As a result Maine “has some of the most inclusive and protective voting laws in the country, making it one of the most democratic states in the United States,” according to a 2018 report by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
With voting rights under attack on other states, we can be proud that the Maine Legislature is considering ways to further expand voter participation in future elections. Two bills this session stand out:
- L.D. 1126, which would create a process for online voter registration by 2023.
- L.D. 231, which would allow unenrolled voters to participate in primaries without joining a party.
Sponsored by Rep. Teresa Pierce, D-Falmouth, L.D. 1126 would address one of the few places in election law in which Maine lags behind the rest of the nation. Forty states now have a system of online voter registration, and we should, too.
If you look at the makeup of the Maine Legislature, you get a sense of the problem. According to research by Democracy Maine, people between the ages of 55 and 74 make up 35 percent of the state’s population but 58 percent of the members of the state House and Senate.
Meanwhile, people between the ages of 20 and 39 make up almost 30 percent of the population, but hold only 16 percent of the seats in Augusta.
Younger voters have more obstacles to entering political process than the older cohort, which makes them less likely to turn out even though they have the exact same right to vote as their elders. They are also likely to have lower incomes and are more likely to have moved since the last election.
Our registration system, which requires voters to visit their town hall or Bureau of Motor Vehicle office when they change addresses, privileges older, better-off voters with stable housing, amplifying their voices in Augusta. Online registration could ease that inequality.
Another way voters are left out is through our closed primary system.
These key elections are treated as private affairs, with only Democrats allowed to take a Democratic ballot, and Republicans a Republican one.
Unenrolled voters, who make up about a third of the electorate, can vote in a primary if they go through the charade of joining a party for 90 days. This disenfranchises voters who don’t want to join a party, and suppresses turnout in primary elections, which, in deep red or blue districts, are the only meaningful elections that will be held.
L.D. 231, sponsored by Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, would allow unenrolled voters to ask for a ballot of either party in primary elections. This would make life easier for election workers, and it would be more honest than the sham enrollments the current law requires.
It could even change the shape of the primary electorate, possibly helping candidates who have broader appeal than just their party’s base.
The coronavirus pandemic made 2020 a year most of us would like to forget, but it was a great year by one measure – voter turnout.
Election officials across the country responded to the pandemic by making it easier for people to vote, either through absentee ballots or in-person early voting. The results were amazing.
Every state showed an increase in voter turnout over the presidential election of 2016, and overall it was the best participation rate since women won the right to vote a century ago.
In Maine, 78 percent of voters took part, more than half by absentee ballots, an option that was facilitated by extending period for early voting and other measures like 24-hour drop boxes outside many municipal offices.
The experience of 2020 showed that if you make it easier for people to vote, more will vote. And it shattered the myth that high turnout elections favor one party over the other. At the top of the ticket, Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Donald Trump split the electoral votes, while Republican Sen. Susan Collins was re-elected easily.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, kept his seat in the 2nd Congressional District, which Trump won by 7 percentage points.
Democrats, Republicans and independents should get behind these efforts to keep Maine a national leader on voting rights and election practices.