When Charles Webster was a member of the Maine House during the 1980s and 1990s, he and his Republican colleagues routinely proposed bills that would create restrictive voting laws—or, as Webster sees it, legislation to tamp down on the rampant threat of voter fraud. “Every year we tried to solve this problem,” he says, “and it was always a partisan vote,” with Democrats supporting laws intended to increase turnout. As a result, Webster says, “We have one of the most loosey-goosey, lax election laws in the country.”
Others would call Maine’s voting laws a striking success. Most states struggle to get citizens to the polls; national turnout for a presidential election hasn’t topped 60 percent since 1968, and turnout for midterm elections hovers in the 30s. That puts the United States far below the participation level in other Western democracies. Yet for the past four decades, Maine has stood apart. With an array of regulations that encourage voting—the state has allowed voters to register on Election Day since 1973—Maine consistently places among the top five states for turnout. Seventy-two percent of the eligible population voted in 2008 when Barack Obama carried the state.
Republicans like Webster, who now chairs the state GOP, argue that too many people are voting in the state—at least, too many illegal immigrants, out-of-state college students, and people who live in hotels. “What I don’t want is somebody coming in stealing elections who doesn’t live in the town,” Webster says.
The political winds shifted Webster’s way after the 2010 elections—not just in Maine but across the country. Maine was one of 11 states where Republican majorities won control over both legislatures. This was the first time in four decades that Democrats had been out of power in the state, and the new Republican majority acted fast. After trying and failing to pass a voter--identification law, they succeeded in repealing same-day voter registration. Republican Governor Paul LePage signed the bill in June.
The push against voting rights in Maine is just one example of the most direct assault on ballot access since the Jim Crow era. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the influential corporate-funded group that writes model bills for Republican state legislators, has pushed Republicans across the country to impose new restrictions on voting and to overturn progressive laws like Maine’s. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” ALEC co-founder Paul Weyrich said three decades ago. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states have passed a steady stream of reforms to make it easier for people to vote. Now Republicans are pushing to make voting more difficult. “This is a hard-fought privilege,” one Florida state senator said earlier this year. “This is something people die for. You want to make it convenient?”
The most headline--grabbing effort has been the creation of laws requiring voters to have photo identification at the polls. Five states—Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Kansas—have enacted strict photo-ID laws since the beginning of the year. Democrats argue that these laws have clear political motivations. Studies indicate that the groups most likely to vote Democratic—the young, elderly, poor, mobile, and minorities—are the ones whose members tend to lack a photo ID. The rules are often configured specifically to favor the Republican base at the expense of excluding likely Democrats. In Texas, for example, showing a military ID or a concealed-gun license will get you a ballot, but a college ID won’t. As many as one in four African Americans lack the identification these states now require, leading Georgia Congressman John Lewis to call the laws “poll taxes by another name.” (Under the Voting Rights Act, voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina must be approved by the Department of Justice because of those states’ history of minority-voter suppression. At press time, the department had not yet ruled.)
But as stifling as voter-ID laws might be, a plethora of manipulations to voter-access laws pose an even larger threat. Numerous states recently have cut back on early voting, which had made it much easier for the working poor—people who often can’t get off work on Election Day—to cast a ballot. In 2008, around 40 million Americans took advantage of early voting. That number will almost surely be lower in 2012, thanks to Republican efforts in states like Ohio. Thirty percent of Ohio’s ballots in the last presidential election were cast by early or absentee voters. In March, though, the Republican--controlled legislature reduced the state’s 35-day window of early voting to 24 days of mail-in voting and just 11 days of in-person early voting. Florida also shortened its early-voting window and made things even trickier for voting-rights advocates by rewriting state laws to impose steep fines on voter-registration organizations if registration forms contain even minor mistakes. The League of Women Voters, the group at the forefront of registering voters across the country, shuttered its Florida voter-registration operation as a result.
Florida is also one of a handful of states that have rolled back voting rights for former felons. In Iowa, Governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, had signed an executive order in 2005 granting voting rights to felons as soon as they left prison. On his first day in office this year, Republican Governor Terry Branstad rescinded that order, removing 100,000 voters from the rolls with a stroke of his pen.
Republicans have pushed these new restrictions under the pretense of reducing voter fraud. “Protecting the integrity of our elections is central to ensuring our government has the full faith and confidence of the citizens it represents,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said after he signed a photo-ID law. “Requiring photo identification to vote will go a long way to eliminate the threat of voter fraud. If you need an ID to buy cold medicine, it’s reasonable to require it to vote.” But there is scant evidence of voter fraud in any state. The Brennan Center for Justice concluded in a 2007 study that fraud was so “exceedingly rare” that a voter is more likely to be struck by lightning than to cast a fraudulent ballot. “It’s a red herring,” says Eric Marshall of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “It’s a reason for them to pass restrictive legislation and limit access to the ballot box.”
That’s certainly been the case in Maine. When House Speaker Robert Nutting first put the repeal of same-day registration on the table this year, he argued that the measure was intended to ease the burden on county clerks overwhelmed by the number of first-time voters showing up on Election Day. When county clerks testified against that section of the bill, saying same-day registrants did not overwhelm them, the Republicans were left to rail against the threat of fraudulent voting. The only problem: No such threat exists in Maine. Only two successful prosecutions of voter fraud have occurred in the 38 years since same-day registration became the law.
Webster, the state party chair, makes no bones about the political reasons for new voting restrictions. He calls the groups that support same-day registration the “welfare coalition”: “It’s the give-me groups. It’s the groups that want government spending.” Webster has been equally explicit in his effort to prevent college students from voting in Maine—though the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1979 ruling in Symm v. U.S. clearly established that college students could register in their school’s district. Webster combed through voting rolls earlier this year and published a list of 206 out-of-state students he believed may have committed voter fraud; the secretary of state, a Republican, opened an investigation. Yet after two months of digging into the allegations, the secretary’s office found that none of the college students voted improperly.
At first blush, same-day registration might seem like a small-bore issue that wouldn’t affect all that many potential voters. But 60,000 Mainers—of 750,000 total voters—took advantage of the regulation during the 2008 election, and 20,000 did so during the 2010 midterms. “Same-day registration is one of the most important measures that states can introduce to improve voter turnout,” says Ann Luther of the Maine chapter of the League of Women Voters. Indeed, the nine states with same-day registration have, on average, 7 percent higher turnout than the states without those rules. That’s particularly useful for younger voters. “When we dig into why, the answer is fairly straightforward,” says Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote. “They’re new to the process, and they’re highly mobile.”
Mainers are fighting back against the repeal of same-day registration. Protect Maine Votes, an organization made up of 18 voting-rights groups, gathered more than 70,000 signatures in less than four weeks to get a referendum on this November’s ballot to overturn the new law. While Protect Maine Votes is urging voters to continue the state’s history of open elections, Republicans are relying on the fear of stolen elections. “In the end, the issue will be: Do people believe our system is free of fraud, or do they believe it’s got fraud?” Webster says. “If they believe it’s free of fraud, then they’ll keep the law.”
While the referendum’s organizers say they’re confident that Maine voters will support same-day registration, they worry about what happens to voter participation in future elections if the referendum fails. “I don’t know how far it will drop the first year,” says David Farmer, communications director for Protect Maine Votes, “but I absolutely believe that the [type of] people who registered in the last two elections will go and try to vote and not be allowed.”
The pushback against restrictive voting laws is picking up some steam outside of Maine. In early September, Democrats on a Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a “Barriers to the Ballot” hearing. National groups like Rock the Vote have also begun to raise awareness about the impact of these new regulations. “It appears some of these politicians are more interested in deciding who the electorate is than in letting the electorate decide who represents them,” Smith says. “And that, to me, is something worth standing up against.”