I love Election Day. Partly because when you’re in the news business, the unfolding political drama, pushing hard against ever-encroaching deadlines, makes it a day like no other.

But another part is personal: To head down to the Buxton Town Hall and cast my vote isn’t just my civic duty. It’s a delight.

First come the candidates standing outside the building, smiling and shaking my hand without even asking for my vote – under state law, on-site campaigning is verboten.

From there, it’s on to the ever-pleasant election workers, who check me in, hand me my ballot and direct me to the voting booth. Decades after I cast my first vote, I still feel a wave of reverence as I pull the curtain closed behind me, almost as if I’m in church.

Then, upon slipping my completed ballot into the machine, I head out to the row of folding tables attended by petition circulators seeking my signature for this or that initiative, others just handing out information and, last but not least, the good ladies of the local Dorcas Society raffling off the mother of all handmade quilts.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?

Absolutely nothing.

So, why change it?

Good question.

Wednesday afternoon, the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee held a hearing on a bill that would, among other things, send all those people at the tables packing.

Prohibited under the bill would be the collection of signatures, the distribution of “informational materials” and all “charitable or other nonelection-related activities.”

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap submitted the bill, which includes several election housekeeping items that make sense.

But the proposed crackdown on what I consider the fun stuff, which Dunlap says came in response to widespread complaints from citizens, election workers and municipal clerks all over Maine, aims to fix something that just ain’t broken.

Worth noting is that no municipal clerks or election workers testified Wednesday in favor of the measure. And only a few of the many citizens who spoke during the afternoon-long hearing had a problem with what goes on at the polls.

One older man from Standish, decrying those seeking his signature on “this, that and the other thing,” said he and his wife have “come to hate going to the polls.” They now vote by absentee ballot, he said, “so we don’t have to face that nonsense.”

Another woman said petitions involving statewide initiatives shouldn’t be allowed at her polling place in Falmouth. “I would like my town’s election to be about my town,” she testified.

Listening to these folks, I got two impressions.

First, upon casting their ballot, they need only keep walking past the tables. Maybe say “no thanks” if they’re the courteous type.

Second, the more they spoke, the more they sounded like they just don’t like the citizen initiative or people’s veto processes. Which is a problem, considering that both have been an integral part of Maine’s election landscape for going on 110 years.

Do petition circulators occasionally get too exuberant or pushy?

Probably so. Which is why another part of Dunlap’s bill rightly states, “If a person attempts to influence voters or interfere with their free passage, the warden shall have that person removed from the voting place.”

Is this problem so widespread that we should shut down signature gathering – not to mention the quilt ladies – completely on Election Day?

Perish the thought.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, spoke for many when she told the committee that elections, and all that surrounds them, reflect who we are as a people.

“Every year I see parents taking their small children to the polls, not to vote, but to engage in the civic process, to meet people, to learn what it is to be an informed citizen,” Bellows testified. “And I think it’s part of the fun. It’s also part of what creates community, that coming together, across party or issue, around one common purpose.”

For all the talk last week, the vast majority of it in support of election-exit activities, the chance that state lawmakers actually will crack down on all the table talking falls somewhere between slim and you’ve got to be kidding me.

The Legislature already finds itself under fire for repealing or substantially changing recent citizen initiatives ranging from education funding to ranked-choice voting – the latter now the focus of a people’s veto drive seeking to veto the Legislature’s veto.

And now lawmakers are going to go after the petitioners? Call them what you will, but they’re not that crazy.

Even Secretary Dunlap, in an appearance Friday morning on WGAN “Morning News,” said the bill’s current language is, at best, a jumping-off point.

“I think the survivability (of the proposed bans) is about five minutes into the (committee’s upcoming) work session,” Dunlap said. “They’ll strip it out and then we can have the conversation.”

Dunlap himself has done a 180 over the years when it comes to the citizen-initiated referendum – he opposed it back when he was a legislator, but has “come to be a pretty big defender of it” as secretary of state.


“As the chief elections officer of the state, I’ve come to see just how tough it is to get something before the Legislature through the initiative process,” Dunlap told his radio hosts. “It takes a lot of commitment, it takes a lot of resources, it takes a lot of organization.”

So why not allow it to play out at the polls? Come to think of it, why not encourage it there?

Cushing Samp of Saco, a petition circulator for ranked-choice voting, told the committee: “As a practical matter, in two hours at the polls I can collect well over 100 signatures. In two hours outside a popular grocery store, in subzero weather, I’m doing well if I can collect 20.”

Many people at the polls do indeed “shake their head and walk on,” Samp said. But many others – their civic engagement bolstered by the fact that they just voted – stop and chat.

“It’s not unheard of for people to wish me luck or thank me for my time, even if they don’t want to sign the petition,” Samp said.

With all due respect to the gentleman from Standish, that’s not “nonsense.”

It’s democracy in action.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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