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)

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.