Report from the Statehouse: VLA Public Hearings April 1

By Regina Coppens

It was a busy day at the legislature today for LWV Advocacy Committee. Four of us attended the hearings and Advocacy Chair, Ann Luther, presented testimony on three bills (so this is a long post!). Helen Hanlon and Stephanie Philbrick attended along with Ann and myself. It was a long afternoon with the presentation of six bills – all pertaining to voting or election administration. We testified on the following bills (and, our testimony was quoted in the Portland Press Herald today).

NOTE: LWVME posts all our legislative testimony on our website.

 

LD 744 (An Act to Permit Unrolled Voters to Cast Ballots in the Primary)

Sponsored by Sen. Roger Katz, who cited low voter turnout as a primary reason for LD744.

“Shouldn’t we do all we can to increase voter turnout?” he asked. In the 2014 Congressional, voter turnout in Maine was only 14%. Unenrolled voters can vote in the primary by enrolling in a party the day of the election, he conceded, but said many unenrolled voters lack confidence in the political parties and don’t want to be enrolled in a party.

Melissa Packard, Director Elections, testified NFNA. She concentrated on the costs of the bill and projected they would increase the costs of elections by about $168,000.

Ann Luther, on behalf of the LWVME, testifying NFNA, presented pros and cons of the bill. (Read our testimony) The League has no official position on the issue, but she pointed out that the barriers to primary participation for unenrolled voters in Maine are already quite low. While the LWV wholeheartedly supports efforts to increase voter participation, research has yet to prove that open primaries would achieve this. Proponents also believe that open primaries would elect more moderate candidates, but research is also mixed on this outcome, she continued. Opponents worry that an open primary may discourage people from enrolling in a party or that it may weaken party affiliation and control.

 

LD 720 (An Act to Establish an Open Primary in the State)

LD 720, sponsored by Rep. Daughtry, proposes a “Top-Two” system to elect Governor, U.S. Senator, and Representatives to Congress. Under this system, the top two winners in the primary would be the only names on the ballot in the general election – regardless of party affiliation.

Rep. Daughtry said she is sponsoring this bill in response to constituent concern about candidates being elected with less than 50% of the vote. She said she was offering this as an alternative to Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV), an idea that is gaining traction and is supported by LWV. One advantage of a Top-Two primary is that is costs less than RCV, and she suggested this method is easier to understand than RCV.

“The beauty of this system could be that the election becomes about the individual,” she said.

Co-sponsor Sen. Ryckerson from Kittery also testified, saying that he hopes this bill would increase voter participation, citing that the largest number of registered voters are unrolled. “We want to elect people, not a party,” he said.

Julie Flynn, Deputy Secretary of State, testified NFNA but briefed committee members on some of the amendments to existing laws that would be needed if this bill is passed. She said this bill would increase election costs by at least $160,000 per election. She compared that to RCV, which she estimates would cost $1 million.

LWVME Advocacy Committee Chair, Ann Luther, presented testimony NFNA. (Read our testimony) She pointed out that the Top-Two primary system would prohibit independent candidates from accessing the general election unless they won one of the two slots determined in the primary. California and Washington have adopted the Top-Two primary system, and an independent candidate has yet to make it to the general election since the system started in those states. She pointed out that it is possible that two candidates from the same party may face off in the general election. Research has shown that many voters skip elections when this occurs because they don’t support either candidate.

The League supports Ranked-Choice Voting as a better alternative, she said, and listed the benefits of RCV:

  • It minimizes “strategic” voting
  • It allows voters to express their sincere preferences among candidates
  • RCV eliminates problems of spoiler candidates knocking off major candidates
  • RCV does not require separate run-off elections
  • It promotes civility in campaigns
  • RCV is most likely to elect a candidate with broad appeal
  • It may improve voter participation

The Top-Two primary system is less costly than RCV and would result in a majority winner. However, she continued, it would not eliminate strategic voting, it would not increase voter participation, and it would not promote civility in campaigns.

 

LD770 (An Act to Permit Maine Residents to Register To Vote Online)

LD770 was sponsored by Sen. Diane Russell, who also presented testimony on the bill. “This bill would streamline voter registration and bring it into the 21st century,” she said. She proposed that it would be more efficient, decrease errors, save money, increase the accuracy of voter rolls, increase protection against voter fraud, and make it easier to register.

This bill would connect voter registration to the Department of Motor Vehicles records, limiting the online voter registration to those who have a driver’s license or state I.D. It is this requirement that LWV opposes since it creates as second-tier registration system for those who have neither a driver’s license nor state I.D. Testifying NFNA for LWV, Ann Luther said LWVME is concerned that requiring picture I.D. to register online could be a backdoor way to requiring photo I.D.s to vote, a practice the League is strongly opposed to.

However, she said, the League does support modernization efforts and removing barriers to voter registration. Due to the long-standing availability of same-day voter registration, Maine already enjoys a high level of voter registration. (Read our testimony) The LWVME testimony offered solutions to the DMV identification, including alternatives for checking the identity of online registrants that align with existing statues established by the HAVA. The League also is in in favor of an electronic system that would make it easier for voters to keep their registration information up to date if they move to a different town in the state.

Julie Flynn, Deputy Secretary of State, testified that 20 states have implemented online voter registration and four more have passed laws and are in the process of implementing this system. She projects that the system would cost between $165,000 and $302,000 to implement. If the bill passes, the system could not be implemented any earlier than December, 2017, she added.

Tracy Stevens testified on behalf of Municipal Clerks, neither for nor against the bill. She made the pint that the clerks would not have to enter the data in this system, but that the application would still have to be reviewed and processed by the clerks before updating the official record.

 

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