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'Same day' voter registration restored in Maine

By Glenn Adams
Associated Press / November 9, 2011

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AUGUSTA, Maine—A campaign that began over the summer succeeded in restoring a longstanding state law allowing voters to register as late as Election Day, while tossing aside a Republican-backed measure that would have required voters to enroll at least two days before an election is held.

A legion of supporters of same-day registration collected enough signatures in a month to force the issue to a public vote Tuesday, and they won with 60 percent of the vote.

"This tells us that Maine people won't stand for people messing with their elections," said David Farmer, spokesman for the Yes on One campaign.

The referendum was put on the ballot through a people's veto initiative after the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law in June requiring voters to register at least two business days before an election is held. That set aside a state law passed in 1973 that allows Election Day, or same-day, registrations.

The nonpartisan public policy organization Brennan Center for Justice at New York University saw the law as part of a trend across the nation to pass laws keeping millions of potential voters from casting ballots.

"Hopefully this will send a message to legislatures and administrators that voters don't like their rights curtailed," the Brennan Center's Wendy Weiser said.

Maine Republican Party Chairman Charles Webster said his side was outgunned financially but he conceded his campaign came up short. "The people spoke," he said.

Lance Dutson, director of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, which also opposed repeal, told the Bangor Daily News he had expected a closer vote but was "pleased at the discussion we helped to initiate around making our elections more secure."

Working on a compressed time frame to force a fall referendum, a coalition of 18 groups that included organized labor, civil libertarians, consumer and public health advocates, disabled and homeless groups mounted a petition drive that temporarily put the two-day registration law on hold.

The public debate that followed was marked by Webster's accusations of voter fraud, made possible by same-day registration. Webster's charges centered on university students who came from other states.

A review by Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers concluded that there was no fraud, but Summers also said it showed Maine's election laws needed further hedges against abuse.

Republicans insisted that the two-day requirement would have given local clerks more time to check for abuse and make the state's election system more airtight. They said the issue has major political implications in Maine's political environment; elections and State House power can be decided by a relatively few votes.

Supporters of same-day registration countered that the law has long encouraged voter participation and has helped give Maine a consistent record of high turnouts. Gorge Mitchell, the former Democratic U.S. Senate leader who also served as special envoy under two presidents, endorsed same-day registration as well.

"Mainers sent a clear message -- the GOP made a terrible miscalculation when it rammed through this measure to limit access to the ballot," said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant.