By Helen Hanlon
Gina Coppens and I attended the afternoon work session for the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee because there were several bills of interest to the LWVME up for discussion. Budget review took most of the first 2 hours, but there were two interesting items:
1. Lobby registration fees, were discussed in some detail. These fees are paid to the Ethics Commission and are now split between the Commission and the General Fund. The Commission proposes keeping the entire amount to underwrite the costs of continuing improvements to its website, which provides online access for filers and the public, and it is generally agreed that the site needed improvements.
In general, the Committee considered the question of raising the fee, but a previous attempt to raise it to $400 was struck down by the courts as a penalty on free speech – there needs to be a linkage between the fee, the money raised from the fee, and the cost to maintain the lobbyist registration system. Diverting half the money to the General Fund is already a bit of a stretch. Returning that money to the Ethics Commission would result in $60,000 lost from the General Fund.
Representatives Turner and Dillingham were uncomfortable with the measure. Increasing fees would help off-set the costs of running the Ethics Commission, but more information was needed about the current actual operating costs, not the fee set after the suit was settled. There was interest in recalling Ethics Director Wayne for more information. Rep. Longstaff endorses returning the fees to the Ethics Commission because he feels the State has been treading on thin ice by using these fees in the General Fund. Action: Tabled until Monday
2. There was also a short discussion about the Secretary Of State’s budget request to replace Administrative Services formerly provided by the HELP AMERICA VOTE ACT (HAVA). Passed after the disastrous presidential election in 2000, HAVA provided billions of dollars to the states over a period of several years for upgrades to voting technology and accessibility. Maine used some of its allocation for the Centralized Voter Registration System and to standardize optical scanning equipment across the state. The federal HAVA money is now running out, and the State of Maine is being asked to provide continuing appropriations for CVR maintenance and to lease the optical scanning machines used in municipalities across the state.
There was a short discourse on funding for voting machines, expiration of one-time funds from Federal Govt. Rep. Luchini said, “Very glad to see this before us.”Action: Unanimous Approval
The Committee then turned to work session on the other bills.
LD626 (Act Regarding Write-In Candidates In Municipal and City Elections)
At issue in LD 626 is how and when a municipality handles write-in candidates. They may opt-in to the State system, and state law requires a candidate to declare as a write-in candidate 45 days before an election. Only declared write-ins are counted. This does not include candidates already on the ballot. The Committee decided to include a provision stating that nothing will prohibit a municipality from counting write-ins and there is no requirement to count fictitious names (Mickey Mouse etc.) Action: Ought to Pass as Amended
LD413 (Act to Expand Access to Absentee ballots)
Currently, as of the 125th Legislature, the deadline for requesting a no-excuse absentee ballots is the Thursday before Election Day. After that, absentee ballot requests require special circumstances to allow voting absentee. Rep. Golden offered an amendment that would strike the work “unexpected” absence from one of the conditions to vote, and just require the voter to sign an application for the absentee ballot that they unavailable to vote on Election Day.
Deputy Secretary Flynn stated that this will help a small group of people who may have simply forgotten and cannot swear to the unexpected nature of their absence (folks uncomfortable with telling a lie) allowing them to vote. Action: This Amendment (to be written) will replace LD413. Vote uncertain due to absence of one member: 5 support amendment; 6 ought-not-to-pass; majority, minority reports to be determined.
LD 585 (An Act Regarding the Processing of Absentee Ballots Prior to Election Day)
LD585 allows for processing of ballots on the Saturday before the election. Town clerks addressed the issue and said they accept this change with any days to be determined by their staffing, workload, etc. Notice of how this is to be done must be posted. In a move, Deputy Secretary of State Flynn stated she has been working on an alternative processing method but is keeping this confidential until she can find some sponsors. Action: tabled (unanimously).
LD507 (An Act to Allow Primary Petition Signatures to Be Proportional to Party Enrollment)
LD 507 would allow signatures from members of any party if the nominating party wishes and notifies the Secretary of State accordingly. After a brief discussion, the Committee decided that this measure might open the door to confusing or even unethical behavior. Action: Ought-Not-To-Pass
LD197 (An Act To Strengthen Maine’s Election Laws by Requiring Photographic Identification for the Purpose of Voting)
Discussion of LD197 covered court cases that involve this issue and the widespread use of photo ID in other states. One committee member asked: Why not do it if everyone else requires it? And, the measure had its supporters. Sen. Collins said, “Photo ID is the right thing to do.” But fortunately, a majority was against it including Rep. Saucier who questioned why voters would need to show a photo again after they’ve registered to vote. “Unnecessary and borders on harassment,” he said. And Rep. Schneck pointed out that it’s not needed for absentee voting and that makes it an inconsistent requirement applying only to voters who appear in person. Action: Ought-Not-to-Pass (7-5votes).