Portland speakers tell commission Maine election law isn't broken

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PORTLAND — Nearly 100 people turned out Thursday night at a meeting to tell a state commission how elections can be improved in Maine.

The five-member commission, appointed in May by Secretary of State Charles Summers, is studying how the state can better conduct elections and increase voter participation. As part of its fact-finding, the commission is holding public hearings throughout the state.

Thursday’s meeting at the Portland Public Library was the second such hearing, coming a week after one in Augusta. Hearings also are planned for Bangor, Farmington, Lewiston, Wells, Presque Isle and Machias.

The hearing took place as issues around voter registration become increasingly controversial throughout the nation.

Just hours before the meeting, a federal court ruled that Texas may not enforce a state law requiring identification for voters. The court said the law would have the effect of barring poor and minority voters from voting.

And on Wednesday, a Florida law restricting the right of civic groups to conduct voter registration was struck down in federal court.

Earlier this year, the Maine Legislature considered a law requiring voters to present photo identification. The requirement was ultimately replaced with a directive for the secretary of state to explore ways of improving the conduct of elections. The commission – and Thursday night’s hearing – are results of that directive.

A mix of residents and local officials spoke to the commission for more than an hour.

“Voting rights are under assault all across the United States,” said Herbert Adams, a professor at Southern Maine Community College and former state representative for the city’s East Bayside and Parkside neighborhoods, who is running to reclaim the District 119 seat in November.

But Adams, like several of the speakers, applauded the state for its record in conducting elections. Voter turnout in Maine is one of the highest in the nation, he said.

In the 2008 presidential election, 72 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to the secretary of state’s office – the third-highest turnout in the nation.

And in nearly 40 years, Maine has recorded only two cases of voter fraud, Adams said, suggesting that tough registration requirements such as photo IDs are needless.

Eliza Townsend, another former state legislator and currently the executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, told the commission a story of a housebound senior citizen, “Ruth,” who would not have been able to vote under the proposed registration law because she doesn’t have the money or means to obtain a photo ID.

“That’s not realistic for her, and that’s not fair,” Townsend said.

State Sen. Richard Woodbury, U-Yarmouth, told the commission that “Maine should be commended” for its election process.

He praised the “sense of camaraderie, community and civic duty” he said he experiences at voting places each election day.

The commission’s chairman, former Superior Court Judge John Atwood, questioned Woodbury about the practice of politicians greeting voters near the polls. “For voters, it can be like running a gauntlet,” he said.

Woodbury responded, “I definitely see both sides. … I think there’s something positive about voters seeing the candidates. But people should also be free to vote and then proceed along their way.”

(Under state law, candidates may be present in a voting place, as long as they do not identify the office for which they’re running or attempt to influence voters.)

Woodbury also praised Maine for overturning a law last year that would have ended the practice of allowing voters to register on they day they vote. More than 18,000 voters took advantage of that option in 2010, he said.

Most of the speakers at the meeting seemed to echo the words of Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, who is serving her second term representing the Eastern Promenade and downtown areas in District 120.

“I believe we need to increase access to the ballot box,” she said. “We should do everything in our power to get people to vote, to engage and to run for office.”

Perhaps the lone exception was an unidentified woman who spoke briefly and asked why Summers wasn’t in attendance, and then stormed out of the auditorium, saying, “This meeting is boring.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.