AUGUSTA – Maine already makes voting by absentee ballot extremely easy, with voters having the ability to cast a ballot early for any reason, sometimes as early as three months before an election, says Maine’s Secretary of State. That was one of the reasons Maine’s top election official gave testimony opposing a new bill put forward by Senator Linda Sanborn (D – Gorham). Others, including the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association, say Sanborn’s bill would open the door to potential voter fraud.
The bill, L.D. 2067 “An Act
To Authorize the Automatic Continuation of Absentee Voter Status until the
Termination of That Status”, would create a list of voters who would receive an
absentee ballot in the mail for every Maine election, eliminating the current
requirement that the voter request the absentee ballot by one of the five methods
that are currently accepted.
“We have concerns that the ballot will not go
to the intended person and new residents of the property might fill out and
mail the ballot back in, unaware that they would have to request their own
ballot. Even though the label will have the name of the previous occupant, the
new resident might just cross out that name, write in their own name and sign
it. If the voter with an on-going absentee request moves or dies, and we are
not notified, we will be mailing ballots to an address that is no longer
applicable. We feel that without the protection of voters requesting an
absentee ballot for each election and potentially alerting the clerk of a new
address, there is a loss of security and checks and balances over the system,”
said Kathleen Montejo, testifying on behalf of the Maine Town and City Clerks’
“We believe there is better control and protection of the absentee ballot distribution process if voters need to request an absentee ballot for individual elections,” Montejo, who is the Lewiston City Clerk, told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.
“The bill as proposed states that municipal
clerks will need to review each signature on the envelope of the returned
absentee ballot. We are not handwriting experts. Signature styles will vary
from the same person and there will be nuances in a signature. Some department
employees may look at a signature and feel that it matches and others may look
at the same signature and feel it does not match. This is a very time intensive
process and adds to a process that already has numerous clerical steps.”
The concern over fraud was echoed by the Maine
Heritage Policy Center and Maine Municipal Association in testimony, who each
said that the method of automatically mailing absentee ballots to individuals
who may have moved or be deceased was problematic in regard to maintaining the
integrity of Maine’s elections.
Under the bill, Maine’s cities and towns would be required to create a list of people who would be automatically mailed an absentee ballot in each Maine election, only removing that person from the list under a narrow set of criteria including a written request of the voter, the return of a ballot as undeliverable, receipt of a death certificate of the voter or elimination of the voter record in the state database.
Maine’s Secretary of State opposed the bill in
testimony to the committee on other grounds as well but also pointed to a 2009-10
pilot program which experienced the problems others cited as opening the door
to potential fraud.
“The four participating towns in the 2009-2010 pilot did find it easy to have a list of ongoing voters and prepare the absentee envelopes for mailing ahead of receiving the ballots from the State’s printing contractor,” said Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn in testimony to the committee.
“However, by the end of the first year, the two larger communities were already seeing an increase in the number of ballots being returned by the post office as undeliverable, due to voters moving or passing away. This will not be an insignificant problem if the State adopts ongoing absentee voting on a statewide basis.”
Along with written testimony, Deputy Secretary of State Flynn provided feedback from the previous pilot program showing that in the city of Brunswick, ballots sent to one-third of voters on the automatic absentee ballot list were returned as undeliverable. In Portland, a number of ballots were also sent to people who had moved, and the clerk’s office reported difficulty in tracking deceased voters who had died outside of Portland, as the information was not readily available. They sent ballots to the voters anyway, the program documentation says.
Flynn, testifying on behalf of the Secretary of State’s office, told the committee that voting by absentee ballot is very easy in Maine and that the Secretary of State’s office does not believe automatic absentee voting would increase turnout. She also explained how the bill will increase costs at both the municipal and state level.
Others, mostly testifying on behalf of liberal
organizations, urged passage of the bill for the sake of voter convenience.
Angelica Katz, testifying on behalf of Planned
Parenthood of Northern New England, suggested that traveling to polling places
on election day was too difficult for some individuals, but also touted Maine’s
current absentee ballot programs as providing opportunity for anyone to vote
well before election day if transportation is an issue.
“Many of the individuals that we serve live in rural areas, where transportation is limited. Therefore, we know that getting to their polling place from work on election day can be a multi-hour commitment,” said Angelica Katz.
“Maine has demonstrated through its existing absentee voting laws that we believe voters should have options on how they cast their ballot on Election Day, and by limiting the bureaucratic burden for voters, everybody wins,” Katz told the committee on behalf of her org, which is primarily known for advocating for easier access and taxpayer funding for abortions.
The Maine Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee is scheduled to take up L.D. 2067 in a work session on Wednesday, February 19th at noon in State House Room 437.
L.D. 2067 is sponsored by Senator Linda Sanborn (D – Gorham). The bill has six cosponsors:
Senator Justin Chenette (D – Saco) Representative Ryan Fecteau (D – Biddeford) Representative Brian Hubbell (D – Bar Harbor) Senator President Troy Jackson (D – Allagash) Senator Nate Libby (D – Lewiston) Representative Matt Moonen (D – Portland)