Civil Discourse in Legislative Hearings

By Irene Lang

Those attending the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee public hearing on LD 121, An Act To Require Photographic Identification to Vote, were witness to an event that is rarely seen in the State House and that raises important questions about the state of discourse in our state and in our country.

As the most recent entry in a long line of contentious efforts to change voting rules in the state, LD 121 would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls unless a municipal clerk could vouch for the person’s identity, and would require the Secretary of State’s office to provide non-driver identification cards to anyone who wants one, free of charge.

The Committee Chairs, anticipating a passionate debate, established ground rules for the hearing that permitted testifiers to discuss the ramifications of the bill, but prohibited them from ascribing motivations to any of the sponsors or supporters. As the hearing progressed, one of the citizens testifying used the word “racist” and mentioned Governor LePage’s name during her testimony, at which point the Chairman cautioned her to stay on topic. As the woman attempted to make her points about racial disparity in the consequences of photo ID, a verbal battle ensued. The Chair muted the speaker’s mic  as the woman insisted that she be allowed to continue, while the Chair – still on mic – insisted that she was out of order.

The Chair’s heightened sense of concern to control any passionate or offensive outburst actually led to an over-reaction, turning what could have been a teachable moment into an angst-producing counter-example. The gaveling down of this speaker, and the heated off-mic exchange, were far more “uncivil” than what likely would have emerged in the speaker’s comments. When the woman claimed her constitutional right to discuss racism, the packed overflow room erupted into applause. More than one observer could be heard saying, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”  The situation was eventually rescued, and she was eventually allowed to complete her testimony, including a discussion of the racial impact of the bill.

However, in the Chairs’ effort to quell what he feared would be an attack on the character of the bill’s sponsors or supporters, he instead tried to suppress discussion of concerns about some very serious issues. Many of those testifying in opposition to LD 121, including the League, described it as a mechanism of voter suppression, disproportionately affecting minority constituents. Clearly, it would be inappropriate to call the sponsor or supporters of a bill racist, and we would expect the Chair to caution against such accusations. But to say that a bill has the potential for racial suppression – or even to say that it is potentially racist – is not to say that its sponsor had that intent or is, himself, a racist.

At the same time, when similar bills have been litigated in other states, they have been struck down if it could be demonstrated that the supporters had partisan or voter suppression motivations. Motivation and intent are relevant.

Civil discourse must allow for free and full discussion of a bill’s impact, including strong opinions and potentially negative consequences. Regardless of the sensitivity or volatility of the topic, it is essential to allow these concerns to be voiced. Racism, in particular, is a destructive force in our world that must be confronted openly and honestly. Using the term “racist” to describe someone who espouses racist views is no less accurate for being offensive, and any offense is clearly insignificant when measured against the destructive impact of laws that result in racist outcomes. To deny the existence of racism or to turn a blind eye to racist behavior – or legislation – is to become complicit in its perpetuation.

While this type of exchange has been rare in the State House, it may become less so in our currently contentious political climate. Civil discourse takes practice. As our citizenry becomes more divided and views become more passionately held, it will be increasingly difficult to find the fine line between strong views and offensive ones. And, as voters become more vocal in their objections to government actions, they will have to find a way to say what they mean without crossing that line. If the relationship between voters and legislators becomes increasingly strained and defensive, it is incumbent upon the legislature to ensure that the rights of constituents to be heard are upheld and to make room for strong opinions on difficult subjects to be delivered in a respectful way.

 

 

 

Easy-to-Read Voter Guide for the 2016 election

We’re so excited!  It’s here!voterguide2016

The League of Women Voters of Maine Education Fund has released its ninth Easy-to-Read Voter Guide for the 2016 election.

This year’s guide covers the presidential race, both federal races for the U.S. House of Representatives, Districts 1 and 2, five statewide citizen initiative questions, and one statewide bond issue that will be decided by voters on November 8th.

As always, the guide is nonpartisan and does not endorse any candidate or party or promote any platform or position on the ballot questions.

quote-about-voter-guide-2
As we have for the past eight years, we will distribute free paper copies of the guide to citizens throughout Maine. This year, we printed and are distributing 50,000 copies to libraries, adult education centers, social service agencies, colleges, and high schools across the State.

A PDF of the guide is also available to download from the LWVME website, www.lwvme.org. Information about candidates and ballot questions will also be online at Vote411.org.

Paper copies can be requested by emailing voterguide@lwvme.org or calling 207-622-0256 Ext 2quote-about-voter-guide

Please share with family and friends so we’re all ready to vote on Election Day!
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Jill Ward, President
League of Women Voters of Maine Education Fund

New U.S. Citizens Register to Vote

By Sarah Palmer, LWVME Summer Intern

 

Sarah Palmer-1As a student studying political systems, I’m very interested in voting and ways to encourage citizens to participate in our democracy. So, this summer, I’m working as an intern for the League of Women Voters of Maine. My first official task was right in line with my interests: I joined other volunteers at a naturalization ceremony at Gorham Middle School and helped 30 new U.S. citizens register to vote.

Because this was my first time attending a naturalization ceremony, I did not know what to expect.  I took a seat in the crowded gym, directly near where approximately 60 people were about to become U.S. citizens, surrounded by their friends and family.  The enthusiastic students and faculty were welcoming to all the visitors.  And the student chorus and band added to the festivities.  As the ceremony commenced, I wondered about the various reasons why these individuals decided to relocate to the U.S. and become permanent residents.  For some, it might be to pursue an education or reunite with family members while others might be fleeing some form of persecution.  I also thought about the long – and maybe difficult – journeys that brought them to this point. Whatever path they took to get here, when it was time to take the oath of allegiance they all shared a common bond: they were all taking the same oath and they would all finally be U.S. citizens.

MakingYourVoteCountAfter the ceremony finished, the other League members and I rushed to the lobby to prepare the voter registration table.  People trickled out of the gym and we began to help many of America’s newest citizens register to vote.  We also handed out copies of the LWVME’s new brochure, ‘Making Your Vote Count’.  What an amazing experience.  I thoroughly recommend attending a naturalization ceremony if you ever have the chance.  The same goes for helping someone register to vote.  It was a thrill to think that I played a hand in increasing citizen participation in politics.

For information about League voter registration events or to volunteer, contact peg.balano@gmail.com

 

Sarah Palmer is a junior at Wheaton College, pursuing a double major in political science and women & gender studies.

 

 

To Caucus or Primary – that is the question

By Helen Hanlon

LD1673, An Act to Establish a Presidential Primary System

The Gang of 3 (Regina Coppens, Stephanie Philbrick, and I) listened attentively to hours of testimony before the VLA Committee. The rooms started out packed, with two camera crews and a long line of people waiting to testify. By 5:30, when the hearing ended, only a few die-hard spectators and Committee members were left. There was lots of discussion and testimony – all of the testimony is available here – but we offer some highlights from the hearing:

The bill was introduced by the main sponsor, Senator Alfond of Portland. Only a fraction of the more than 90 co-sponsors were on hand, but some were there to lend support. According to Senator Alfond, legislators heard lots of complaints after the caucuses. With record turnout across the state for both the GOP and Democratic caucuses, people waited hours in line, and some never even got to vote. In many locations, the traditional caucus format was abandoned for a hybrid system that allowed participants to cast a vote and leave. The result was angry citizens who felt disenfranchised and frustrated. In response, LD 1673 proposes to return to presidential primaries in lieu of the caucus system.

Throughout the testimony, it emerged that many of the problems were caused by poor communication and organization at the party level. Caucuses are the responsibility of the parties, not the state or municipalities, and the Democrats, Republicans, and Greens hold their own caucuses according to national party rules. They also fund the caucuses, provide training for local conveners, and handle public communications about the events. It became clear through testimony that many voters were confused by the system with some thinking that they could still vote in a presdiential primary if they skipped the caucus. Still many more didn’t understand the process and showed up too late to vote (or spent hours in line only to find out they were too late). And more were turned away because they were not registered and the municipal registrars, after staying the required time – and sometimes more – had gone for the day.

After similar issues arose in the past two presidential elections (for Democrats in 2008 and for Republicans in 2012), a bill to return to a presidential primary was proposed. It was, according to Sen. Alfond, put on hold, became a study, and ended there. Presidential primaries were held in 1996 and 2000. Prior to that, Maine traditionally had a caucus system so our current system is a return to one that older generations are familiar with.

The testimony began with co-sponsors and then proponents, so throughout the early part of the hearing speakers said a Primary System seemed to be what most voters wanted. Even some of the Committee members agreed that many voters want to show up, vote, and leave. However, Rep. Schneck (D. Bangor) said his District seemed split 50/50. Everyone agreed that waiting hours to vote was not to be tolerated. And, it was pointed out that once inside a caucus, people waited hours longer to vote and weren’t prepared (or interested) in the other business of the caucus. In Portland, the wait was up to 5 ½ hours – very difficult for younger voters (with odd work schedules) and those with children. In the North and Downeast, caucus-goers had to travel long distances to the one central location offered in their region. In Biddeford, the GOP caucus was shut down by the fire department because the facility was overcrowded. Co-sponsor Joyce Maker (Dist. 140) heard from a constituent who said that it was impossible to attend because she relies on oxygen. Between the long drive each way, waiting in line and waiting to caucus, the supply of oxygen in one bottle isn’t enough. Because of the long wait and long drive, she felt cut out of the system.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap spoke in favor of the bill …. (continued)

Top Ten Reasons to Support LWVME in 2015

 

Giving Tuesday 2015 copyWe hope your Thanksgiving was full of family, friends, food and fun.  We hope, for those of you who like a good bargain, that Black Friday and Cyber Monday brought you many steals and deals.DonateStar

Now, we hope you will help us have a successful #GivingTuesday by supporting the League of Women Voters of Maine and our efforts to make democracy work better in Maine.

Top ten reasons to support LWVME in 2015:

10. Registering new voters.  On National Voter Registration Day, at naturalization ceremonies across the state, and throughout the year the League is there making sure citizens are registered.  So far this year, we have helped to register more than 400 new voters.

9. Annual Easy-to-Read Voter Guide.  The 2015 guides helped Portland voters make informed decisions on the mayoral race, and all Maine voters got the facts on the statewide ballot questions.

8. Open Dialogue and Civil Discourse.  Through candidate and issue forums the League gave voters an unbiased place to ask questions and get them answered.

7. Advocacy.  Providing expert testimony in Augusta on voting rights and laws that encourage voter participation.

6. All-Volunteer.  That’s right.  The League does all this great work and more through volunteers.

5. Holding our local and state officials accountable.  The League is a leading voice in Maine for your right to know and our right to a government free of corruption and undue influence.

4. Ranked Choice Voting in Maine.  Ranked Choice Voting is certified for the ballot in 2016, which would give voters the power to rank candidates from favorite to least favorite, thanks in part to the League’s leadership.

3. Pushing Back against Big Money in Politics.  YES on 1 passed, strengthening our landmark, first-in-the-nation Clean Elections system and bringing more transparency and accountability to Maine elections.

2.  Nonpartisan.  The League continues to be one of a few nonpartisan, grassroots, political organizations working on behalf of all voters, and we are proud of this heritage.

1. Your voice.  Your vote.  It’s what makes democracy work and it’s why the League of Women Voters of Maine is here, working every day for you to make sure your vote counts, your voice is heard.

#GivingTuesday is propelled by those who believe that passion and commitment can make a difference.

We certainly believe that here at the League of Women Voters of Maine.

If you want to help us make a difference, please make a donation today to support our work.

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Jill Ward
President, League of Women Voters of Maine

Report from the Statehouse: VLA Work Session April 24

Showing Initiative

By Helen Hanlon

The place seemed deserted on a Friday – I even found a place to park!

First up on the docket:

LD1290 (An Act To Repeal the Maine Clean Election Act and Direct the Savings To Be Used for the State’s Contribution toward the Costs of Education Funding)

Things started off with Senator Brakey of Auburn introducing his bill. He explained that it wasn’t really his intent to “REPEAL” the Clean Election Act, but rather to give Maine Citizens a choice: to keep, expand or repeal the Act. He admitted that the bill was misleadingly titled and needed clarification. The goal, he said, was to allow Mainers to use their tax dollars for education vs. more political signs and victory parties. He claimed that the Maine Clean Election Act had not reached its goal of transparency and had failed to clean up negative campaigning. And, though he didn’t present details, he said it actually increased campaign costs.

The Committee members grilled Senator Brakey about the intent of this bill and about his statements that MCEA was a failure. Many (10 out of 12) on this Committee had used MCEA funds for their campaigns, and so most seemed to be against (or at least perplexed by) this bill. The lone hold-out was Rep. Dillingham of Oxford who seemed to agree with Brakey. She is one of the few traditional candidates on the Committee.

Rep. Luchini noted that the MCEA was initiated by the voters and suggested that any repeal efforts should also involve signature gathering to place it on the ballot. The Committee Chair, expressed his profound appreciation for the MCEA saying,

“Never in a million years could I ever have imagined sitting in this chair without the MCEA, I am humbled.” – Sen. Cyrway

Additionally, Rep. Schneck and Sen. Patrick both voiced strong support for keeping the MCEA, with Senator Patrick adding, “If money is speech, then speech isn’t free.”

Senator Brakey answered Committee questions for nearly 40 minutes. There was a lot of confusion about the education funding piece of this bill. Was it a way of diverting voters from the real issue (repealing MCEA)?  Was this a competing measure? Why 2015? Why not 2016? Brakey agreed to consider amending the education piece upon the recommendation of Rep. Longstaff.

(Note: Contrary to the title of this bill, there is no dedicated Educational Fund and monies are almost never segregated in this way. It would most likely go into the General Fund to be allocated just like any other State funds)

Senator Brakey couldn’t stay for more discussion due to commitments on the Senate floor. It’s unfortunate but Legislators are busy this time of year with responsibilities for several bills and committees.

No one spoke in support of LD1290.

Ed Youngblood spoke for nearly an hour about the importance of MCEA and efforts to improve the Legislation through the 2015 initiative. He fielded many insightful questions from the Committee who obviously had immense respect for him. They expressed how much they missed his experience and presence in the Legislature.

Allison Smith, founder of the Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, spoke forcefully about this as a citizen’s initiative, emphasizing to Brakey, “We have thousands who signed petitions, no one is here speaking with you.”

MCCE spokesperson Robert Howe put the icing on the cake, when he reminded the Committee members that this wasn’t a “competing measure” but a calculated plan to undermine the initiative by depriving it of a majority. “Go out and collect your own signatures if you want this repealed,” he said.

It was a spirited hearing, for sure. My read on the Committee members is this:

  • Dillingham supports Brakey & this bill.
  • Longstaff supports an amendment eliminating the Education piece and then may support the bill.
  • Harrington, Cyrway, Schneck, Patrick, Luchini, oppose LD1290.
  • Kinney, Turner, Soucier, Golden played it closer to the vest and their opinion is unclear.
  • Bear, absent.

Other bills

LD1335 (Act to Amend Election Laws)

Addressing a variety of issues; an agency bill from Deputy Sec. Of State Julie Flynn.
LD1138 (An Act regarding Municipal Reporting of Statewide Elections)

Action: ONTP (Unanimous) – with timeline components to be folded into LD1335

LD742 (Resolution proposing an Amendment to the Constitution requiring a 5% of signatures on a Direct Initiative of Legislature Coming From each County).

Action: Tabled (Unanimous)
LD1127 (An Act regarding The Authority of the Secretary of State and the Attorney General To Conduct Investigations of Vote Recounts)

Action: ONTP (Unanimous)

Rather than passing a new law, the Committee chose to appoint Deputy Secretary of State, Julie Flynn, to work on new rules and regulations, and keep Committee informed.
LD1084 (Resolution Proposing An Amendment To The Constitution of Maine To Exclude Wildlife Issues From Citizens Initiatives)

Action: Tabled (Unanimous)

 

Bills We’re Following This Legislative Session– So Far

The LWVME Advocacy Committee follows several bills through the Maine Legislature each session. Generally, these are measures that concern voting rights, election issues, and government ethics. Sometimes we simply monitor a bill, but often we give public testimony, attend public hearings and work sessions, contact senators and representatives for information, and work with other groups on issues that support the principles and priorities of the LWV. Here is a list of the measures we’re following (so far) in the first session of the 127th Maine Legislature.

LD & Web Link Title
LD 6 Resolve, To Implement Recommendations of the Government Oversight Committee To Strengthen the Ethics Practices and Procedures for Executive Branch Employees
LD 15 An Act To Increase Transparency in Campaign Funding in Legislative Elections
LD 53 An Act To Require Shareholder Consent for Corporate Political Contributions
LD 33 An Act To Strengthen the Maine Clean Election Act, Improve Disclosure and Make Other Changes to the Campaign Finance Laws
LD 80 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Lower the Age Requirement To Run for Legislative Office
LD 106 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Increase the Length of Terms of Senators to 4 Years
LD 145 An Act To Amend the Verification and Certification Process for Direct Initiatives and People’s Veto Referenda
LD 174 An Act To Restrict the Raising of Money by Maine Clean Election Act Candidates
LD 175 An Act To Limit Maine Clean Election Act Funding to First-time Candidates
LD 176 An Act To Amend the Law Governing the Gathering of Signatures for Direct Initiatives and People’s Veto Referenda
LD 182 An Act To Eliminate Term Limits for Legislators
LD 189 An Act To Prohibit Undisclosed Political Spending
LD 197 An Act To Strengthen Maine’s Election Laws by Requiring Photographic Identification for the Purpose of Voting
LD 204 An Act To Prohibit Certain Activities by Maine Clean Election Act Candidates
LD 225 An Act To Amend the Laws Governing the Collection of Signatures for Referenda
LD 237 An Act To Address Recommendations from the Report by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability Regarding the Public Utilities Commission
LD 252 An Act To Increase Transparency of Entities Receiving Substantial Amounts of Public Funding
LD 334 An Act To Improve the Maine Clean Election Act
LD 370 An Act To Amend the Lobbyist Disclosure Procedures Law
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
LD 413 An Act To Expand Access to Absentee Ballots
LD 509 An Act To Facilitate the Timely Return of Requested Absentee Ballots
LD 532 An Act To Prohibit Maine Clean Election Act Candidates from Accepting Special Interest Money through a Political Party or Political Action Committee
LD 584 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Prohibit the Denial of Equal Rights Based on the Sex of an Individual
LD 585 An Act Regarding the Processing of Absentee Ballots Prior to Election Day
LD 617 An Act To Change Municipal Campaign Contribution Limits
LD 619 An Act To Limit the Participation of Candidates and Legislators in Political Action Committees and Nonprofit Entities Conducting Political Activities
LD 626 An Act Regarding Write-in Candidates in Municipal and City Elections
LD 641 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Elect 2 Senators from Each County
LD 720 An Act To Establish an Open Primary System in the State
LD 742 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Require That 5 Percent of Signatures on a Direct Initiative of Legislation Come from Each County
LD 744 An Act To Permit Unenrolled Voters To Cast Ballots in Primary Elections
LD 770 An Act To Permit Maine Residents To Register To Vote Online