Seeking a vote on voting: People's veto campaign launches

Posted Wednesday, June 29, 2011 in News

Seeking a vote on voting: People's veto campaign launches

by Marian McCue

AUGUSTA -- Bob Talbot recalled last week that a Republican-dominated legislature in the early 1970s had achieved many things, including the unanimous passage of a law that allowed Mainers to register to vote on election day.

Talbot was one of several speakers at a State House press conference that launched a people’s veto campaign to stop a new law that would end Maine’s 37-year practice of allowing same-day voter registration.

 “For the life of me I don’t know why we would want to turn the clock back now,” said Talbot.

Talbot was one of several activists who last week filed petitions with the Secretary of State’s  office to launch a people’s veto campaign that would overturn part of a new law that ends same day voter registration in Maine. Once the Secretary of State’s office certifies petition language, the organizers have 90 days from the day the Legislature adjourns to gather 57,277 signatures to force a vote on the new law.

If the signatures are gathered by August 8, the vote could be on this November’s ballot which will include local elections and a referendum on casino issues. If the August deadline is missed, but the signautres are still gathered within 90 days, the issue would be on next June’s ballot, which also features a primary election for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Olympia Snowe, as well as primaries for the U.S. Congress and the state Legislature.

But the battle over the people’s veto, if it gets to a vote, is likely to be as bitter and partisan as the debate in the Legislature that passed the new law. Another law that tightens voting requirements and would require photo identification to cast a a vote, was referred back to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. That was viewed as a last minute Republican effort to keep it alive, even though the Senate had earlier voted 19-15 to kill the measure, with five Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

The coalition that is leading the people’s veto campaign is made up of  groups like the League of Women voters, and includes groups like the Maine Women’s Lobby, the Maine Education Association, the AFL-CIO, the Maine League of Conservation Voters, and several others.

But others who spoke at the press conference were not allied with any political group, but committed to the principle of same day voter registration.

“Same Day voter registration is not a problem,” said Harold Booth, a poll worker in Hallowell. He said that if same day voter registration is banned after 37 years in place, many people will show up at the polls expecting that they can register and vote on election day, and they will not be able to.

Sara Squires of the Disability Rights Center said that disabled people would be most affected by a change in the law. Many of her group’s members need transportation on election day, and being able to register and vote on the same day is vital.

The people’s veto campaign will have 90 days after the Legislature adjourns to collect the signatures. If  sufficient signatures are collected, the new law is suspended until the vote is held. The other part of the law, which tightens the deadline for absentee voting to three days before election day, is not being challenged in this campaign.

Battle lines

A clue to the partisan tone of the voting registration issue was provided by Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster, well known for his aggressive posture against Democrats, who showed up at the end of the press conference to repeat his charges of improper voting practices.

Webster predicted that the signatures would not be gathered quickly enough to get on November’s ballot, and instead would go on the June ballot.

“Unless (Donald) Sussman gives them $500,000, it can’t be done in 30 days,” said Webster, who also said that there will be a lot of money from “the Obama people.” (Sussman is a wealthy donor to liberal causes who is married to Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree.)

Webster told the New Maine Times that he thinks it would be easier for his side to defeat the people’s veto in a June election.

“This would be a battle, we’ll have a campaign,” said Webster, who plans to use Republican legislative candidates to fight the people’s veto as they campaign next year.

“I would put an army on the ground to advocate on this issue,” said Webster. “It would give the legislative candidates another reason to get out early.”

For their part, the organizers of the People’s veto admit that the goal of getting the signatures in time to get on the November ballot is challenging, but they are optimistic. Ben Dudley, a former legislator and now executive director of Engage Maine, said that he is confident that the wide network of organizations in the coalition, including labor unions and the Maine Education Association, will bring experience and a broad membership base to the campaign.

“Protecting voting rights is a value held dearly by all Maine people,” said Dudley.

“We have a very energized group of sizeable membership organizations who will be working on this,” said Dudley, who dismissed Webster’s predictions as “wishful thinking.”

blog comments powered by Disqus