VLA Work Session March 2: Absentee Ballots

By Iris Levitis

 

LD 1539 (An Act To Expand the Early Processing of Absentee Ballots)

The VLA Committee met to discuss LD 1539, a measure the League supports and testified for in January. The use of absentee ballots continues to rise, and the time currently allowed for processing is insufficient due to the growing number. This, along with the short amount of time set aside for processing the ballots, puts an undue burden on town clerks and their staffs. Several town clerks, the Secretary of State, and Senator O’Connor (who sponsored the bill) also testified in support.

Bill summary: This bill provides that a municipality may opt to process absentee ballots as early as the 4th day before the election. It also authorizes the Secretary of State to make available high-speed tabulators for absentee ballots and to allow a municipality to bring absentee ballots to a central location for tabulating by the high-speed tabulators as long as security guidelines are properly followed

Legislative Analyst Danielle Fox opened the work session by noting that this bill was discussed in a previous work session on Jan 27th. The measure includes language also found in LD 1484 (the Secretary of State’s agency bill). That bill is currently tabled in the Senate but a second reading in the Senate would allow for removal of duplicative language.

Rep. Luchini suggested that, for now, the Committee let the two bills (1484 and 1539) stand alone. He then made a motion to pass as amended, striking the high-speed tabulator bit. Motion was seconded by Rep. Turner.

Sen. Patrick said, “Clerks have been coming to us to adjust the system for absentee ballots, and I am in support of this.” Sen. Cyrway concurred, “These extra days are needed. Security is not an issue because handling is highly prescribed. This really needs to be done, and it is so critical for them. The tabulator threw a wrench into it, so if we can get rid of that…”

Sen. Collins asked for a summary of the bill as amended, and Analyst Fox replied: Make it an emergency bill that would allow processing of absentee ballots on Friday and Saturday in addition to Monday. Removing central high-speed tabulation.

Result: OTP-A unanimous (Rep. Saucier and Sen. Cyr absent for vote)

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Why LWVME Supports Ranked Choice Voting

By Polly Ward & Regina Coppens

 

In March 2011, after a three-year study, the LWVME issued its position in support of Ranked Choice Voting. Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) requires the winner in single-seat candidate elections to receive a majority of the votes cast. The State Board of the LWVME studied the pros and cons of various alternative voting methods, reviewed the positions of other state Leagues, gathered research, and developed a questionnaire. These materials, including the questionnaire, were distributed to members in the area Leagues in Portland, Brunswick and Ellsworth for discussion and consensus. Members at large of the LWVME were also included in the consensus process. League members demonstrated a clear consensus in favor of ranked choice voting.

Right now in Maine, the plurality system is used in candidate elections for state and federal office. Each voter marks their ballot for a single candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins. When only two candidates are on the ballot in an election using the plurality system, the winning candidate will always have a majority.

However, in races with three or more candidates, it is possible for a candidate to win with fewer than 50% of the votes; in other words, the winner can be elected by a minority of the voters. Recent examples of this include Maine’s 2006 gubernatorial election in which John Baldacci was re-elected with just 38% of the vote and the 2010 gubernatorial election in which Paul LePage also won with only 38% of the vote. Again in the 2014 election Paul LePage won with only 48% of the vote. In fact, going all the way back to 1974, only twice have we elected our governor with more than 50% of the vote, and both times that happened it was the re-election of an incumbent governor for a second term.

Plurality voting, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, can be thorny in elections with more than two candidates. Voters may sometimes be reluctant to vote for the candidate they most strongly support for fear of facilitating the election of the candidate they most strongly oppose. The winning candidate may be one fervently supported by a minority of voters – albeit a winning plurality – but lacking the broad support of a majority of voters.

On the other hand, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) encourages candidates to reach out to more voters, alleviates concerns about the “spoiler effect,” and ensures the election of candidates who have majority support.

 

Here’s why the League supports RCV:

  • RCV ensures a majority winner
  • 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

 

Rank Choice Voting Explained

In Rank Choice Voting, voters rank the candidates on the ballot, marking their first, second, and third choices, etc., depending on how many candidates are in the race; however, a voter does not have to vote for more than one candidate. In round one, the first-choice votes on all ballots are counted. If a candidate gets 50% + 1 of the votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no one has a majority, the counting goes to round two. The candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. The votes cast for the eliminated candidate are then transferred (or moved) to the second choice listed on each ballot. If someone gets a majority, the election is over. If no one receives a majority, the counting goes to round three. All ballots are re-tallied, with each ballot counting as one vote for each voter’s highest ranked candidate who has not been eliminated. This process of elimination and retabulation is continued until a majority winner is found. That majority winner will have been ranked by 50% + 1 of the voters who ranked at least one non-eliminated candidate. There is no need for a separate runoff election, thus explaining why RCV is sometimes called “instant run-off voting.”

 

A simple example illustrates how RCV works.

One hundred citizens are voting for the most architecturally unique city hall in Maine. The candidates are Portland City Hall, Augusta City Hall, and Bangor City Hall.

RCV_1

Round One

In round one, the first-choice votes are counted. If one of the city halls gets 50% + 1 of the votes, that building is declared the winner. If no city hall has a majority, the counting goes to round two.

In our example, with 100 votes, no courthouse has a majority, so the election goes to the next round.

Round Two

RCV_2

In round two, the city hall with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. The votes cast for the eliminated building are then transferred (or moved) to the second choice listed on each ballot. If one building now gets a majority, the election is over.

In our example, the lowest vote- getter, Bangor, is eliminated, and the 19 votes are redistributed — 15 for Portland and 4 for Augusta.

Now Portland has 41 + 15 votes or 56, and Augusta has 40 + 4 or 44. The Portland City Hall wins with the majority of the votes. No round three is needed.

 

What’s Happening Now With RCV

For almost two years, a group of current and former legislators, League members, attorneys, other interested parties, and representatives from FairVote have been meeting in a working group convened by the League to develop a proposal for ranked-choice voting. Read the proposed legislation here. http://www.lwvme.org/files/RCV_Statutory_Language.pdf

In the fall of 2014, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting was formed by former Senator Woodbury to gather signatures for a citizen’s initiative to place Ranked Choice Voting on the ballot for the people of Maine to vote on the proposal. Petitions were distributed beginning on Election Day 2014. The response from voters has been extremely positive. The Committee will continue to collect signatures through the summer and will turn them over to the Secretary of State’s Office in early fall 2015. Once approved by the Secretary of State’s Office, the initiative will appear on the ballot in November 2016.

 

The summary of the public referendum reads:

This initiated bill provides ranked-choice voting for the offices of United States Senator, United States Representative to Congress, Governor, State Senator and State Representative for elections held on or after January 1, 2018. Ranked-choice voting is a method of casting and tabulating votes in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, tabulation proceeds in rounds in which last-place candidates are defeated and the candidate with the most votes in the final round is elected.

 

You can sign up for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting mailing list or to help collect the remaining signatures by clicking here: http://www.rcvmaine.com

 

 

 

 

 

Report from the Statehouse: VLA Work Session April 8

By Helen Hanlon

Lovely day at the VLA! The Committee was raring to go, the most engaged I’ve seen them so far with great give and take at today’s work sessions.

LD1335 (An Act To Amend Election Laws) and LD585 (An Act Regarding the Processing of Absentee Ballots Prior To Election Day)

Both of these bills were tabled after several hours of meticulous review with Legislative Analyst Danielle Foxx and Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn.

The 14 page analysis of this Legislation brought out many questions from the Committee, but they were still unclear on several issues (noted below). Deputy Flynn stated her hopes for a unanimous OTP vote. She stated that she was willing to bend on a few sticking points in order to see the main point passed. The result would save money, time and staffing, and produce a better product for the voters, too. But, though the Committee mostly seemed in favor, they felt they needed time to discuss some of the specifics.

Action: Tabled.

Points of possible contention with LD1335:

  • Sec.4 . MRSA  Para 331, sub-Para.1

The substantive change in this bill means that no primary would be held for legislative and county offices when there is only one qualified candidate running for office. It also increases the number of days before an election that a write-in candidate must provide a declaration of intent (from 45 to 70 days). This would provide the Secretary of State’s office with additional time for ballot preparation. The cost of changing ballot styles and printing remains an issue for their office.

Several Committee members, notably Reps. Turner, Longstaff and Dillingham, felt that a candidate may be put at a disadvantage if their name isn’t on the primary ballot – even if they don’t have an opponent in that race – because it may affect their name recognition in preparation for the main race. They also queried whether voters might be confused when candidates are omitted from the ballot.

  • Sec. 6  21-A MRSA  Par. 371

Candidates for Nomination vacancy. This would result in a substantive change governing nomination of a replacement candidate when a candidate withdraws before the primary. It requires that withdrawal before a primary must be “for good cause.” This section also changes the deadline to withdraw from 60 to 75 days before the primary. Committee members discussed Rep. Chenette’s bill regarding Place Holders and his experience with the situation. Deputy Flynn reported that the number of withdrawals has increased substantially over the years (50-60 during the last few elections), and currently there are about 2,000 different ballot styles. Both Rep. Turner and Dillingham agreed on the good cause aspect, believing that once you agree to put your name on the ballot, there is a moral aspect to this oath and it should not be treated cavalierly. Rep. Luchini cautioned the Committee to be careful of “legislating ourselves into a corner.” Sen. Cyrway felt that sometimes parties just need more time to find a suitable candidate, therefore the place holder can have a legitimate function.

Currently party rules determine how the public is notified about withdrawal and replacement of a candidate. Legislation could clarify and set specific parameters but Deputy Flynn stated she wasn’t eager for separate bill.

  • Sec. 20.21-A MRSA Para. 712

If an election return is not delivered to the Secretary of State on time a penalty would be imposed on the Town Clerk, resulting in a civil violation and fine of not more than $50/day the return is late. There was much discussion regarding the appropriateness of targeting the clerk vs. municipality. Rep. Saucier felt the fine should be larger ($500) and charged against the municipality not the clerk. Deputy Flynn countered that the Clerk is the officer charged with this responsibility, and it is considered a crime to not comply with election laws. However, she said that this wasn’t a deal-breaker for this bill but it has become an onerous burden for her staff.

LD1192 (An Act Regarding Campaign Finance Reform)

In addition to the dizzying detail above, I added horse racing to my list of vices this session (adding it to booze, bear hunting, slots, underage drinking for veterans, OTB). What can possibly be next? I sat through two Horse racing bills before learning that LD1192 was off today’s docket. I did, however, learn what “handle” means (a wager or bet) and how many out of state horse breeders are in Maine collecting up to $500,000 so I can’t count the afternoon as a loss.

 

 

Report from the Statehouse, VLA Public Hearing March 9

LD 509 (An Act To Facilitate the Timely Return of Requested Absentee Ballots)

By Helen Hanlon

The public hearing opened around 10:00 am on Monday. The morning was filled with the “Emergency Keno” proposal to halt the addition of 300 Keno outlets without having a Public Hearing. The session then segued into craft beer issues, “growler” refills, and wine/spirit tastings. Finally, at 2:30pm, came the bill I had been waiting for: LD 509 — the Absentee Postage Bill — was presented with an impassioned delivery from Rep. Schneck about this “simple” measure of using business-rate return mail envelopes to assist citizens returning absentee ballots.

Two questions from the Committee members centered on cost. That’s it. No other discussion or interchange among members, so it was difficult to assess whether they were for it or against it.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn testified Neither-for-nor-Against]. She stated that she meets with postal authorities prior to elections regarding postage rates and displayed a template used to determine postage. She explained that business reply envelopes can’t be used because postal regulations require a permit holder for that service, and the mailing must go to and from a single point. Pre-stamping envelopes with no control on the local level would likely lead to waste. If the Secretary of State’s office provided the anticipated number of postage-paid envelopes for absentee ballots, some sort of audit would be required. Calculating approximately 70,000 absentee ballots, she estimates the cost at about $33,400 per general election with locals needing to pick up their own tab for special elections, etc.

In all, there were seven pieces of testimony, including a Neither-for-nor Against statement from LWVME’s Ann Luther. Written testimony was submitted by local officials objecting to the option allowing the state to collect reimbursement of postage from the towns. You can read all the testimony here.

 

Interesting note: In the 2014 General Election, (not including military and overseas ballots which are already required to be postage free) 137,790 total absentee ballots were issued; 132,700 were returned; 5,170 or 3.7% were not returned. In 2012, 175,196 absentee ballots were issued; 169,881 were returned; 5,376 or 3.1% were not returned.

Long day! Now, I’m going to have a glass of whine….

 

Legislative Report: VLA Public Hearing March 2, 2015

The LWVME Advocacy Committee follows several bills each legislative session and three of interest to us were up for Public Hearing before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee (VLA) on yesterday (March 2). This report from Helen Hanlon (with the addition by Ann Luther) offers an update on the status of the bills and gives us a ring-side seat to the public discussion. If you want to read the testimony for each bill click on the links below.

 

By Helen Hanlon

LD 413 (An Act to Expand Access to Absentee Ballots)

Town Clerks were out in force to oppose LD 413 and the majority of attendees at this hearing were opposed to this measure. Several Town Clerks cited an increased work load, primarily on the Monday before Election Day from extensive use of “convenience voting” with no-excuse absentee ballots, and thus an increased chance of error if this bill passes. While absentee voting is becoming very popular with voters, Maine citizens’ already excellent access to ballots (“best in New England after Vermont”) was discussed. In addition, it was maintained that it’s unnecessary for voters to have in-person absentee voting on Election Day.

Ann Luther testified (LWVME Advocacy Committee Chair) neither-for-nor-against, as did the Acting Deputy Secretary of State.  Ann pointed out that the remedy could well be Early Voting. The bottom line seemed to be “if it ain’t broke”…., but there may be a chance to lift the ban on no-excuse absentee voting the Friday before Election Day. Read all the testimony on this bill under the “Status in Committee” tab here.

LD 334 (An Act to Improve the Maine Clean Election Act)

Rep. Michael Devin of Newcastle spoke in support of. Rep. Devin is also the sponsor of the bill. He spoke about political action committees (PACs) initiated by Clean Election candidates and how to close this loophole which runs counter to the concept of Maine’s Clean Election Act. Leadership PACs were a particular focus of discussion.

Maine Citizens for Clean Elections also testified in support of this bill, paying special attention to Leadership PACs and the need to have the same rules apply to both privately funded and Clean Election campaigns. It was reported that most of the leadership PACs in 2014 were run by privately funded candidates who vastly exceed their $375 contribution limit in their PAC fundraising.

It was clear that there is a lot of interest in shining light on campaign financing and the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee seems poised for further study at a work session. Read all the testimony on this bill here.

LD 370 (An Act to Amend the Lobbyist Disclosure Procedures Law)

Finally, we heard testimony regarding LD 370. Currently Lobbyists must pay $200 annually to the State. Half goes to the general fund and half goes to the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election. The proposed bill would give the entire amount to the Commission. Suggestion was made to consider simply including needed amount for update of IT and any other expenses in Appropriations. Based on our own experience, we believe there are substantial unmet needs with the Commission’s web site that could serve the public interest. Testimony provided by Mr. Jonathan Wayne, Director of Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election and by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE). Read all the testimony on this bill here.

LD 383 (An Act Requiring Corporations to have Approval from a Majority of Their Shareholders before Making Political Contributions Valued at Greater than $5,000).

Reported by Ann Luther:

After a lunch break, the Committee reconvened, and Senator Gratwick presented his bill, LD 383. This bill is similar to LD 53, heard earlier this session, and parallels efforts at the federal level, thus far thwarted, to have the SEC require such contributions to be disclosed to shareholders, at least. Senator Gratwick acknowledged that his bill would only apply to Maine-based corporations and would only have a significant effect if similar measures were passed in many other states, but he cited efforts elsewhere to do exactly that. Rep. Rykerson, the sponsor of LD 53 also testified in support, as did Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. Read all the testimony on this bill here. LD’s 53 and 383 will have their work sessions today, Wednesday, March 4, beginning at 10:00 am. You can listen by audio link here.