AUGUSTA — Leaders of the effort to repeal a new law eliminating Mainers’ ability to register to vote on Election Day are “cautiously optimistic” that they will succeed in getting the issue on November’s ballot.
Opponents of the law must gather more than 57,000 signatures of registered Maine voters by Aug. 8 to put the repeal question on the statewide ballot in the fall.
Mark Gray, campaign manager for Protect Maine Votes, said, “We’re getting just an overwhelming amount of positive response, both from people that are calling or sending us emails, wanting to volunteer to circulate petitions, and the people that are out knocking on doors and talking to folks to collect signatures.”
The coalition of statewide groups is taking aim at a law passed last month to prohibit voter registration and absentee voting in the two business days before an election. If it misses the Aug. 8 deadline, it could get the question on the ballot in June 2012.
One petition circulator, Cathie Whittenburg of Portland, had mixed results on a recent afternoon in the city.
Whittenburg, a board member for the League of Women Voters of Maine, approached a handful of people who told her they were not registered Maine voters, were too busy, or had already signed. The few who took the time to hear her pitch seemed aware of the issue and signed eagerly.
Jeff Hamm of Gorham, who signed one of Wittenburg’s petitions, said, “If we want to ensure that everybody’s voices are heard, we need to make sure that we’re creating an environment where people have as much access to registration as possible, and I think by taking away same-day voter registration you are sort of limiting that access.”
Lucinda Pyne of Portland said, “I think it’s really important that younger people and people who may not get involved in politics until the very end, until crunch time, that they can vote and register on the same day.”
Even as the signature-gathering picks up, an effort is under way to prove that voter fraud has been a persistent problem in Maine.
Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, is convinced that scores of students who come from out of state to go to college in Maine are voting in two states in the same election.
He said that if his investigation turns up the results he expects, Mainers will agree with the steps taken by the Republican-led Legislature to change Maine’s 38-year-old law allowing same-day registration.
The issue — in the Maine Legislature and nationally — runs largely along party lines, with Democrats pushing for easier ballot access and Republicans concerned with voter fraud.
In one instance, Webster said, he found evidence of a student who “voted in her home state, next election she voted in Maine, next election she voted in her home state.”
Webster wouldn’t say whether he had found evidence that any student voted twice in the same election.
“I think it’s fair to say that I have found out more information in three days than the Democrats who have been in power for 38 years have made any attempt to find,” he said.
Webster plans a news conference to reveal his findings on a yet-to-be-determined date.
For Webster, the issue may be rooted in experiences that his town clerk in Farmington has had.
Leanne Pinkham said Election Day in the college town can be hectic and heated. She said she has hired as many as six people to assist with elections, helping to register voters among other things.
The presence of Democratic lawyers prevents her deputies from doing their jobs effectively, she said.
“We’re not able to look at those voter registration cards and really scrutinize them, because they jump in,” she said.
Pinkham said that when workers tell potential voters they must present proper documentation — such as a piece of mail — to register, the lawyers interrupt and say it isn’t necessary.
“I feel that you kind of lose the integrity of an election that way, because why are there laws?” she said.
Matt Dunlap, a former Democratic lawmaker and secretary of state, said it is true that people can register without proper documentation, but their ballots should be challenged.
He said a challenged ballot is assigned a secret number so, in case of a recount, it can be pulled out and verified. If it isn’t verified, the vote doesn’t count.
“It’s very common, when people show up at five minutes of 8 and they decide they want to register and vote and they don’t have their utility bill, they don’t have a photo ID, so you vote a challenge ballot,” Dunlap said.
Pinkham said she does challenge some ballots, but “it never gets anywhere.”
“We have such quick deadlines and you have to get all this stuff in before an election, and it would be helpful if there was a cut-off,” she said.
The new law would not prevent college students — or any other new registrants — from voting, but it would give clerks more time to scrutinize each form, Pinkham said.
Dunlap said he doesn’t support the repeal of same-day registration, unlike the current secretary of state, Republican Charlie Summers.
Summers argues that the new law will reduce clerical burdens on municipal clerks during elections and take a “lean forward” approach to preventing problems.
Dunlap said he has empathy for the clerks, “but the bottom line is, the elections process is not there for the municipal elections official.”
Maine was one of just eight states that allowed same-day registration. Summers said the two-day ban was a moderate compromise.
“If that franchise is as sacred as I believe it is, then I think it’s entirely reasonable and moderate to just back this up 48 hours to allow the clerks to prepare the list so that they have the most up-to-date voting list,” he said.
Summers said he drafted the legislation, which was championed by Republican legislative leaders, in part to help prevent a Florida-like situation in Maine.
He said Florida officials felt confident in their process until the 2000 presidential election, when chaos broke out.
“It exposed all of the inefficiencies in the system, and I think we are in a similar situation,” he said. “I believe that unless we do something to just allow the clerks to prepare for the election, 48 hours, then sooner or later we’re going to come up with a problem, and at that point people will be wondering why we haven’t done something.”
That argument doesn’t sway Whittenburg as she gathers signatures.
“You have to base that fear on evidence of something that’s there,” she said, “and there is no evidence of a problem here.”
Rebekah Metzler — 620-7016