Forecaster Forum: Mainers can handle voter registration changes

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You’re not smart enough to vote.

Based on their rhetoric over the past few weeks, that seems to be what the Maine People’s Alliance and other fringe left-wing groups think of you. They’re pouring a huge amount of money and resources into a campaign to force a people’s veto on recently passed legislation dealing with voter registration.

I voted in favor of LD 1376, which has now been signed into law. It takes the simple, reasonable step of requiring voters to register to vote at least two business days before Election Day, thus eliminating same-day registration.

The bill was prompted by growing pressure on election officials around the state who, in recent years, are being asked to do more with less. Ever since state law was changed to allow absentee voting for no reason other than convenience, clerks have been inundated with last-minute absentee ballots and registrations.

When the legislation was being considered in Augusta, a Maine Town and City Clerks Association official testified that this “literally leaves us no time to set up our polling places properly and prepare our voting lists the day before an election. When a person registers before Election Day, the voter registrar has ample time to solve any problems beforehand and better serve the voter.”

The new law is a step toward joining the mainstream when it comes to voter registration deadlines. Most states require their residents to register weeks before Election Day. In Massachusetts, for example, voter registration shuts off 20 days before the election. In New York and 16 other states, the cutoff is a full month. Even liberal California closes registration two weeks in advance of an election. Maine, even with its new two-day deadline, will still have one of the most accommodating systems in the country.

But you would never know that if you listened to the Maine People’s Alliance and other groups behind the people’s veto drive. Recently, they turned in what they hope will be enough signatures to force a vote on whether to repeal the law this November. In the course of their campaign, they have been using words like “disenfranchisement” and “voter suppression” to make their case.

Really? Asking voters to make sure they are registered two days before Election Day is voter suppression? This notion is absurd when you consider that you still have 247 business days a year to register. All you need to do is go your town or city hall, fill out the form and you’re done. If you can’t do that, you can register at any Bureau of Motor Vehicles office or any of the state’s social services agencies. If all of that fails, you can call your local municipal office and request the registration form by mail.

Does this sound like “disenfranchisement” to you?

The people’s veto supporters also claim that certain groups, such as the elderly, will be unfairly affected by the new law. This is also untrue. State law requires municipal clerks to visit every nursing home and residential care facility in their district prior to an election and give all residents an opportunity to register.

It’s also important to note that if you are already registered to vote and haven’t moved, none of this affects you. And if you have moved within your city or town, you can update your address on Election Day.

On one point, I agree with the backers of the referendum. Compared to most other states, Maine’s voter turnout is very impressive. They attribute that, in large part, to the availability of same-day registration. But statistics tell a different story: Same-day registration was first introduced in Maine in 1973. Voter turnout in the decades preceding and following that year has remained virtually the same.

It is a strong commitment to civic duty and awareness of candidates and issues that get Mainers to the polls, not the perceived convenience of same-day registration. And I believe it’s an insult to suggest that Maine residents are incapable of fulfilling the simple requirements needed to cast their vote.

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Maine state Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, serves on the Health and Human Services Committee.