Missing the story on early voting

An interesting story-line developed in the closing days of the election.

As the Bangor Daily News headline proclaimed, “Early voting less popular this year in Maine than in 2008.”

There were similar stories from the Associated Press and in the Portland Press Herald.

But none of the stories mentioned a key factor in the reduced early vote totals.

Since 2008, Maine’s absentee voting laws have gone through a drastic – and I would argue, negative – change.

Last year, Republicans in the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage made it much harder for voters to participate. Part of the change, the elimination of same-day voter registration, was the subject of a People’s Veto.

And voters, by an overwhelming majority, restored it.

But Republicans also curtailed the time period for absentee and early voting.

In 2008, voters could vote on the Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday before Election Day. A number of towns and cities held voting hours on the weekend to make it easier for working people to participate in the election.

That’s not allowed anymore.

Under current law, the last day voters can vote early or request an absentee ballot, without demonstrating special circumstances, is the Thursday before the election.

While the news coverage of the early voting numbers suggests that the practice has fallen out of favor with voters, there’s no real evidence that that is true.

With four days fewer to participate before Election Day, about 188,000 Mainers had requested an absentee ballot, which is only down about 66,000 from 2008.

Of those, Democrats held the advantage with about 74,000 votes in the bank, compared to 53,600 absentee ballots for Republicans and 55,500 for unenrolled voters.

All told, roughly one in four Mainers decided to vote early this year.

While restricting access to early or absentee voting was billed as a change to make elections run more efficiently, the truth is uglier.

Democrats place a larger emphasis on early voting than do Republicans. Republicans cut the time to vote short in the hopes of suppressing the number of Democrats who cast a ballot.

In 2009, Maine ran a pilot program for early voting, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Along with their ballots, voters were encouraged to fill out a survey about their experiences with early voting.

The results of the survey were very positive.

During the pilot, 12,970 voters – roughly 23 percent of the folks in the test municipalities – participated in early voting. Of those, 93 percent returned their survey forms.

As the report prepared by the secretary of state found: “Responses indicate that the pilots were successfully and, generally, enthusiastically embraced by those participating.”

The report found that the peek voting times for early voting were Thursday, Friday and Monday preceding Election Day, which means in one shot, the Legislature eliminated two of the three days in which voters were most likely to cast a ballot early.

And we wonder why early voting is down?

The reasons that people said they appreciated early voting varied. Some reasons were as simple as convenience or that they were at their polling places for other business. Others were more specific: Work hours made it difficult for them to vote, or disability or mobility issues made it difficult to navigate long lines on Election Day.

Of those who responded to the survey, 98 percent said they would like the option to vote early in the future.

If our goal is to have a government that is truly representative of the people, one of the first things we need to do is increase participation in our democracy.

Our goal should be to expand the opportunities to vote, not to turn away eligible voters because we are concerned about how they might vote.

Maine is a national leader in voter participation, ranking among the best states in the country. That’s something we should all be proud of.

It’s my hope that during the next year the Legislature will reconsider the new hurdles it created to voting and once again allow people to cast their ballots on the days before Election Day.

It would be good for voters, and it would be good for our democracy.