During a year of pitched partisan battles elsewhere over voter rights and election processes, Maine lawmakers made it easier to register to vote and permanently adopted some election measures that had been implemented temporarily during the pandemic.
Not all voting-related measures had strong bipartisan backing in the Maine Legislature, to be sure. Bills opening the door to online voter registration or to allow college students to use their student ID when registering, for instance, were passed by the Democratic majority over the objections of Republican colleagues.
But Democrats and some Republicans were able to reach common ground on other issues, such as banning direct contributions from businesses or labor unions to candidates, and a still-pending bill to create semi-open primaries in Maine.
“I was glad that, with what we are seeing across the country with measures to restrict access to voting, here in Maine we actually took steps to increase access,” said Sen. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, sponsor of several bills and co-chair of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which oversees election issues.
One of the bills sought by progressive groups, L.D. 1126, would allow Maine residents to register to vote online by Nov. 1, 2023. The bill, which was sent to Gov. Janet Mills last week, would direct the Maine secretary of state to develop rules governing online voter registration, including how voters’ signatures would be recorded as well as measures to ensure the accuracy and security of online registration applications.
School-issued photo IDs were also added to the list of qualifying “official documents” that can be used to register to vote in a municipality, along with utility bills, bank statements or other government documents showing a person’s address. Another provision of that broad bill, L.D. 1575, also explicitly prohibits clerks or poll workers from counting or tabulating absentee ballots before polls close, even if the ballots have been fed into an optical scanning machine.
Even before COVID-19 hit the U.S., a large chunk of Maine’s electorate was already taking advantage of the fact that voters can cast absentee ballots early for any reason. But the pandemic dramatically turned the tables to the point that, in many towns, the vast majority of votes cast in the 2020 elections were via absentee ballot.
Another measure that has already been signed into law makes permanent some of the voting process changes implemented amid the physical distancing and indoor capacity restrictions required during the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, many towns and cities set up drop boxes outside municipal offices during the pandemic so voters could drop off their absentee ballots at any time.
L.D. 1363, which was proposed by Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, authorizes absentee ballot drop boxes going forward while providing municipalities with detailed instructions on where boxes should be located, security requirements and how often ballots must be retrieved (at least once a day when the office is open).
The bill also formalizes the tracking program that allowed voters to monitor the status of their absentee ballots during the pandemic and lays out the process for resolving, “or curing,” potential problems with absentee ballots, such as missing or mismatched signatures on the return envelope.
Bellows was out of the office and unavailable Thursday. But in a statement after the Senate vote on the bill, she said many of the pandemic-related changes were worth keeping.
“We’ve heard from Maine voters and local election officials that many of the changes enacted in 2020 to protect health, safety, and access to the ballot were beneficial, and we’re excited to continue them in future elections,” said Bellows, a former director of the ACLU of Maine and state senator from Kennebec County. “Maine has a long history of leading the way on conducting free and fair elections with robust participation, and LD 1363 keeps us on that path.”
Luchini’s bill would prohibit corporate contributions to candidates, and also to political action committees operated by lawmakers. Such “leadership PACs” are often used by lawmakers to funnel additional money into campaigns, but without some of the spending and contribution restrictions imposed on candidate committees.
“As we’ve seen, sometimes these legislator-controlled PACs will take in enormous amounts of money,” Luchini said Thursday. “We wanted to pass this measure to give people more confidence in their elections.”
Anna Kellar, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine, said Maine tends to have good access and voting rights laws, but the systems behind the scenes are sometimes outdated. Kellar said the pandemic forced the state to go through the state’s election laws with a proverbial fine-toothed comb and resulted in bills such as L.D.s 1575 and 1363 to provide municipal clerks with clearer guidance on issues like drop boxes, required posting of general information about upcoming elections and ballot curing.
“(Maine has) been a leader in this regard for a long time and there is a lot of pride on both sides of the political divide in that Maine has good elections,” Kellar said.
In the wake of the 2020 elections and President Trump’s false assertions of widespread fraud, Republicans across the country have pushed successfully for voting changes that they say are necessary to secure and improve the election process. Democrats and voting rights advocacy groups, meanwhile, view the laws passed in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina as blatant attempts to restrict voting access, particularly in minority communities.
The conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld voting restrictions passed in Arizona in a 6-3 ruling likely to make it harder for groups to challenge some of the new election laws passed in Republican-led states. Democrats and Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, are at loggerheads over a Democratic bill that would require states to adopt same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, online voter registration and other changes.
Zachary Heiden, chief counsel at ACLU of Maine, which supported many of the election laws that passed in Maine this year, said “the voting rights victories this legislative session in Maine will reduce barriers to voting and enable more eligible Maine voters to cast a ballot.”
“Voting is the cornerstone of democracy,” Heiden said in a statement. “This year, at least 17 states have rolled back voting rights, and the Supreme Court continues to undermine the federal Voting Rights Act. It is more important than ever for Maine to protect voting rights and expand access to the ballot.”
Several notable bills have yet to emerge from both chambers or were rejected by lawmakers.
Democrats rejected three Republican-backed bills to require voters to show photo IDs before casting ballots, an issue that has gained traction in many other states across the country in recent years.
Republicans, meanwhile, helped defeat a bill that sought to amend Maine’s Constitution to allow ranked-choice voting to be used in the general elections for governor and the Legislature. Currently, ranked-choice voting comes into play during gubernatorial, legislative and federal primary elections, but is only allowed in federal races during general elections.
Mills successfully vetoed a bill that would prohibit foreign-owned companies or foreign nationals from contributing to referendum campaigns in Maine. The bill, which passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, was a response to the heavy political spending by entities affiliated with Hydro-Quebec as the company seeks to build a high-voltage transmission line through western Maine.
A bill that would allow unenrolled or independent voters to participate in a party primary – creating what are known as “semi-open primaries” in Maine – received preliminary approval in both chambers of the Legislature. But the change was predicted to cost roughly $200,000, largely to print additional ballots, and the Legislature’s budget-writing committee has yet to allocate the funding necessary for final passage.