June 14, 2011

On same-day voting, GOP's playbook was pure politics

Mike Tipping

The bill that eliminated the ability of Mainers to register on Election Day and during the two days beforehand is unique.

I wasn't sure why it was different at first; something just seemed strange about the debate on the bill. It took a while before I realized what it was: Unlike every other piece of legislation considered during the current legislative session, there's no real philosophical or ideological argument for its passage.

When Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans targeted Maine's environmental protections, they were wrong (and largely unsuccessful), but at least they made arguments based on fundamental conservative ideology. The debate was one of genuine differences about the role of government in regulating natural resources and environmental practices.

On workers' issues such as collective bargaining, employee pensions and even the labor mural, there was an element of sticking it to unions that had opposed Republicans politically; but there were also philosophical cases to be made about business, government, and workers' organizing rights and representation.

Even the health insurance industry deregulation bill, in my opinion a craven handout to the big insurance companies, contains provisions letting Republicans trumpet free-market ideals. I imagine it's this rhetorical cover that allowed Republicans to vote for a bill that probably will harm their party's traditional constituencies in rural Maine.

The same-day voting bill, on the other hand, lacks even a fig leaf of broader principle. In fact, the opposite is the case.

Republicans have declared loudly and often that they value the processes of democracy and the institutions of civic governance. LePage brandished a copy of the Constitution on the campaign trail, and last week he lauded the passage of a bill mandating high school civics classes and declared that each child in Maine must be encouraged to "actively participate as a citizen."

This bill makes a mockery of those ideals.

So far, there have been two lines of reasoning expressed publicly in favor of the bill.

The first is the contention that it will reduce the workload of town clerks on Election Day.

The clerks themselves dispute this and the Maine Association of Municipal Clerks opposes the law, so that would seem to end that argument. In fact, I imagine the law actually will create a great deal more work for clerks to have to explain to and argue with newly disenfranchised Mainers about why they aren't allowed to vote, rather than simply letting them fill out a card.

The second contention, which so far has been expressed publicly only by GOP chairman Charlie Webster, is more of a crazed conspiracy theory than a legitimate item of legislative debate.

"If you want to get really honest, this is about how the Democrats have managed to steal elections from Maine people," Webster said in an interview with Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz. He went on to claim that under Job Corps, a vocational training program run by the Department of Labor, Democrats drive buses of people to swing districts and have them vote illegally.

There is zero evidence of any kind of organized electoral malfeasance in Maine. It's frightening that this kind of statement could play any role at all in the legislative process.

So if it's not about ideology, it's not about the workload of town clerks, and if we charitably assume the entire process isn't being driven by rantings about a secret Democratic election-stealing cabal, that only leaves one option.

What remains is the possibility that Republicans are choosing to put their own potential electoral advantage ahead of their principles and the voting rights of Maine people.

They know young people are both more likely to register on Election Day and to vote for progressive candidates. They know that elderly Mainers, who might find it difficult to make an extra trip to the town hall, are more likely to vote for Democrats. In pushing this bill, it seems obvious the argument they're really listening to is a political one.

I imagine the vote for this bill will do lasting damage to the credibility of legislators who supported it. It will also, unfortunately, do lasting damage to the values, principles and political culture of our state.

Mainers have always valued civic participation. From our town hall meetings to our record election turnout, we pride ourselves on having our voices heard.

A law that silences some of those voices should have a very good reason to do so. This one absolutely does not.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He's @miketipping on Twitter. Email to writebacktomike@gmail.com.

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