Maine leads on voting access. We can do even better.

Maine has an opportunity to improve its voting laws, making this fundamental part of representative government even better.

Many bills are before the Maine Legislature that would increase access to the ballot.

Mainers already have one key element that helps people engage in the democratic process. When people move to or around Maine, they can go to their polling place on the day of the election, register to vote and cast their ballots. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia had Election Day registration before the 2018 election, and then Maryland joined them after voters endorsed a referendum by more than two to one.

One excellent proposal that could further improve ballot access in Maine is true early voting.

Many municipalities allow Maine people to vote early at their town halls (or, sometimes, other polling locations), using no-excuse absentee ballots.

But there’s a quirk in the law: Unless you already have an absentee ballot that you picked up earlier or got in the mail, you can’t vote early after the Thursday before the election.

This limit sometimes comes as a surprise to voters who have to work, help out an elderly family member or watch small children on Election Day. These folks want to vote and know there’s some type of early voting, so they plan on voting the Monday or Friday before Election Day. Then they find out that’s not possible because those reasons don’t fit the criteria for casting absentee ballots after the Thursday deadline.

Early voting volunteer Mary Richard (right) grins at an incoming voter as her cohorts Donna Leland (center) and Connie Gray wave signs reading “Next” in 2016 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Micky Bedell | BDN

Right now, town clerks use the time from when no-excuse absentee balloting is halted to Election Day to count absentee ballots, often feeding them into voting machines.

But allowing early voting through Election day with machine counting as voters come in would be better for people in yet another way. If a voter makes a error in marking their ballot, the machine would indicate that when the voter is right there, enabling them to correct the ballot.

An amendment to the Maine constitution is needed to move to this approach of true early voting. LD 619, which is sponsored by Rep. John Schneck of Bangor, the Chair of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, and other legislators, proposes an amendment giving municipalities the option to  conduct early voting by allowing voters to vote in the same manner as on election day during a prescribed period immediately preceding an election.” Making this change would make it easier for Mainers to vote.

Another idea making voting more accessible is for Maine to adopt some sort of automatic voter registration, a system which exists in sixteen jurisdictions in the United States. Just a few months after Oregon became the first state to use automatic voter registration in 2016, registrations at their Department of Motor Vehicles offices nearly quadrupled. Individuals can opt-out of registering if they want. Doing voter registration this way helps keep the voting rolls up to date and avoids errors that could occur when individuals fill out their own cards.

Just as other policies and practices vary by state, so does automatic voter registration. Some states ensure that domestic violence survivors’ names are kept private so that abusers can’t use public voting roll information to track them down. Certain states automatically register people when they interact with a range of different state agencies. Alaska, which gives its residents a share of oil revenue, uses that process to register voters. Several states’ laws prescribe educating voters about how the system works.

Automatic voter registration would work well with another process already in place in Maine that gets people ready to vote once they’re old enough. Seventeen-year-olds can pre-register and vote in Maine primaries if they will be 18 by the general election. Fourteen states allow pre-registration at 16, which is the youngest age that Mainers can get a driver’s license. Whatever the age pre-registration starts, combining it with AVR is a good practice since studies show that getting people starting with voting helps make it a lifelong habit.

The Maine Legislature has a chance to make our excellent voting system even more accessible, and should seize that opportunity.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.