Election clerks: Absentee ballots more problematic than same-day voter registration

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BRUNSWICK — As a bill to eliminate same-day voter registration worked its way through Maine’s Legislature last week, proponents frequently cited the plight of the state’s municipal clerks.

One of those proponents was Secretary of State Charles E. Summers Jr., who, in testimony before a legislative committee in May, argued that the clerks are overwhelmed with work in the days leading up to elections, and need some “breathing room.”

“They do not have the flexibility or the resources to simply bring in more staff to handle the final days of an election, and they struggle to perform their regular municipal functions alongside this increasingly concentrated voter registration and absentee ballot process,” Summers said.

But in a canvass of area clerks last week, not all agreed with Summers. Some said they welcomed passage of the measure, saying that same-day registration gave them headaches, and resulted in long lines at the polls. But others, like Brunswick’s Fran Smith, were opposed, since their offices, bolstered by extra workers, are capable of withstanding the onslaught.

“It’s really not about me. It’s about my voters,” Smith said. “It’s my job to get people to vote.”

According to Smith, in the 2008 presidential election, Brunswick officials registered nearly 800 new voters on Election Day and in the two business days prior – the period restricted by LD 1376.

The measure would also prohibit people from requesting absentee ballots in that period. In Brunswick, Smith said, almost 400 residents did so in 2008.

To accommodate all those voters, Smith said she hires extra staff, at a cost she estimated at $500 for the three-day window.

“We’re very fortunate that we have a community that’s supportive, and a council that’s supportive,” she said. “Because I have enough people to do it, I have a hard time supporting something that takes something away from the people that I’m trying to get to vote.”

Like Smith, the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association opposed the elimination of same-day voter registration, according to Patti Dubois, the association president. But it did support restrictions on the issuing of absentee ballots.

“The shift is on, statewide,” she said. “We’ve been at the point for several years now, saying that something has to give with absentee voting.”

Indeed, in Yarmouth, Town Clerk Jennifer Doten said that absentee voting takes up a “phenomenal” amount of her time.

In her office on Friday, as she printed and highlighted envelopes containing absentee ballots for this week’s local election, Doten said she supported both restrictions contained in LD 1376, although she emphasized that accommodating absentee voting is her biggest problem.

In the weeks prior to a big election, Yarmouth also brings in extra staff and sets up a community room to accommodate the “constant” influx of absentee voters, Doten said. All the work distracts from the preparations for conventional, election-day voting.

“Most clerks, including myself, are so tired by Election Day, because we have spent, literally, 16-hour days printing lists, preparing lists, highlighting things that need to be highlighted, setting up polls, getting notices out,” Doten said. “When we have people coming in all day doing absentee voting, the only other time to print that list, set up your polls, and do everything else is either before that time, or after that time. And it’s crazy.”

In South Portland, which can process as many as 6,500 absentee ballots in a big election, City Clerk Sue Mooney said she would also welcome restrictions on that type of voting – even if it was just a single business day – to give her office more time to prepare for Election Day.

“If (voters are) around the day before the election, (they) should be able to get to the polls on Election Day,” she said.

As for same-day registration, Mooney said she didn’t see a need for a ban. But she did note that over the last few years, political parties performed “significant” outreach to citizens emphasizing the right to register on Election Day. It would be better, Mooney said, if the parties helped people to do so earlier.

“Rather than telling everybody, ‘oh, don’t worry about it, you can go and you can register to vote on Election Day,’ it should be in the opposite, that people are encouraged to make their change of address, or register to vote, before the election, and then come down and vote on Election Day,” she said.

While Mooney said she’d like to see same-day registration preserved for the benefit of those who “get behind the eight-ball,” Bath City Clerk Mary White wants to hold her residents to a higher standard, and she said she would support elimination of same-day registration.

“You have to pay your registration on your car, you have insurances, you have all this stuff,” White said. “You know that an election is coming up, you need to be more responsible.”

White said she keeps her office open on Saturdays prior to elections, so that residents can come in and fill out necessary paperwork. But, she said, Bath still averages 250 new or changed registrations each year, out of a total of 6,000 voters.

And because some of those people neglect to bring identification, or proof of residency, White occasionally has to challenge ballots, which grinds voting to a halt.

“You’re getting a line out the door, you’re getting people very upset at you, because they don’t understand the procedure,” she said. “We do have those people in line that are legit, and have every right to be able to come in and vote, and we have to stop it for those who don’t take responsibility to come in ahead of time.”

Responsibility was a theme that was echoed by Smith, the Brunswick clerk, who said that she is concerned about the impact of the LD 1376. She worries she’ll have to turn people away from the polls.

“It’s going to break my heart when someone walks in, and they’re not able to vote because of the new law. Doesn’t mean they weren’t responsible to know about the new law, but it’s really difficult. Especially if it’s a first-time voter, or someone who’s passionate about what they believe in,” she said. “I’ve been in this profession … for about 17 years, and to do that is really difficult. But we will respect the law.”

Sidebar Elements


Yarmouth Town Clerk Jennifer Doten prepares absentee ballots for this week’s local election. She said absentee balloting takes up a “phenomenal” amount of her time.

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