With rights under attack, don’t take voting for granted

Democratic State Sen. Cynthia Dill and Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers won impressive victories in Tuesday primary elections, each scoring strong victories over crowded fields.

Unfortunately for them, and for Maine, only a smattering of voters participated. Voters took their right to participate for granted and many stayed home.

For both parties, turnout appears to have been below 15 percent, a disappointing showing for a state that typically is among the national leaders in voter participation.

Such a low number is why Republicans, in Maine and around the country, have felt emboldened to do what once was unthinkable: Launch an all-out assault of voting rights.

Last year, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the Republican-controlled Legislature attempted to end the practice of same-day voter registration, a 38-year-old practice that has helped thousands of Mainers to vote.

Their efforts failed, when voters stood up for their rights last November.

On Tuesday, new voters were able to register and vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries.

Soon after LePage affixed his signature to a bill eliminating same-day registration, a strong, nonpartisan coalition formed and launched a People’s Veto campaign to restore voting rights.

Throughout the summer, Summers and Chairman of the Maine Republican Party Charlie Webster waged a campaign of distortion and fear aimed at protecting their voting rights rollback.

While the effort to eliminate same-day voter registration was a Republican initiative, once the issue moved out of Augusta and into communities around the state, opposition was bipartisan and strong.

In November 2011, voters overwhelmingly rejected the law and restored same-day registration, with more than 60 percent of voters voting in favor of the People’s Veto.

Republicans, Democrats and independents agreed that same-day registration was worth saving.

Voters responded to the fact that Maine’s elections are efficient and secure and that same-day voter registration had helped our state to have one of the top voter participation rates in the country.

A law that had been on the books for 38 years was protected, and on Tuesday all voters – even those who were courted by Summers in the primary for the GOP nomination to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe – could register and vote.

But the assault on voting rights, while stalled in Maine, continues around the country as right-wing groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and the American Justice Partnership, continue to push an agenda to reduce voting rolls and make it harder for people – particularly low-income voters, minorities, people with disabilities and the elderly – from voting.

The American Justice Partnership is a shadowy organization that funded the majority of the campaign against voting rights in Maine last year, putting up the money for misleading campaign commercials that voters saw right through.

Around the country, such groups – many with ties to the infamous Koch Brothers – are working to deny people their right to vote.

Along with American Justice Partnership, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which refuses to disclose its funders and is part of a national network of conservative political operatives, played a leading role in the campaign to make it harder to vote.

In Florida, a purge of the voting rolls has forced the U.S. Justice Department to intervene. That state is tangled in lawsuits and countersuits.

Among those illegitimately removed from the rolls was a 91-year-old World War II veteran who has become one of the faces of the fight in Florida to protect voting rights.

The order to remove names for voting lists came at the direction of Florida Gov. Rick Scott and is likely illegal.

Other state’s have seen similar attacks on voting rights, with onerous new requirements restricting the ability of eligible voters to participate. New laws in South Carolina, Wisconsin and Texas, like Florida, have run afoul of the law, and the courts have intervened to stop them.

In 2010, Maine had the highest voter participation rate in the country, and over the last 30 years, our state comes in third for the percent of eligible voters who participate.

As Maine moves beyond our primary and into a general election that will feature a presidential election, a high-profile U.S. Senate race, an important issue referendum and the balance of power in the state Legislature up for grabs, we can expect that once again Maine will be among the leaders for voter participation.

Turnout Tuesday was sad, but I have no doubt that voters – many of them new – will be energized in November.

And the ability to register and vote on Election Day will help to make sure that every eligible voter can participate.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He was the communications director for Protect Maine Votes in 2011. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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