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Maine Lawmakers See Flurry of Election-Related Proposals

The bills range from requiring verification of absentee ballot signatures to establishing full online voting. These proposals follow a historic election that saw record levels of voter participation and baseless claims of fraud.

by Scott Thistle, Portland Press Herald / January 5, 2021
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(TNS) — The Maine Legislature is poised to debate more than a dozen bills that could substantially change the way ballots are cast and counted in state elections.

In all, the pandemic-restricted Legislature has more than 1,600 bills on its docket as it prepares for public hearings and other actions this month.

The voting bills range from requiring verification of absentee ballot signatures to establishing full online voting. These proposals follow a historic election that saw record levels of voter participation followed by President Trump's baseless and ongoing claims of election fraud.

The Republican lost the popular vote by more than 7 million votes nationwide in November and was soundly defeated in the Electoral College as well — winning 232 votes to the 306 votes won by Democrat Joe Biden. Still, Trump and his allies have continued to claim, without evidence, that votes were cast illegally in states the president narrowly lost.

Those claims have set the stage for debates over ballot access and election security in legislatures across the country.

In Maine, both Republicans and Democrats are offering proposals that will be the subject of public hearings before the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee in the weeks ahead.

Rep. Maureen Terry, D-Gorham, is the primary sponsor of a bill that would make Maine one of the first states to allow full online voting. Terry believes encryption technology is at a point where voters should be able to cast their ballots securely from their homes electronically.

"There's a way to do it that's safe and secure and has all the security that our regular voting has," Terry said.

Maine currently restricts electronic voting to overseas residents or those with significant visual impairments.

Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, is one of several lawmakers who is sponsoring a bill seeking to make Maine's absentee balloting system more secure and more private. Her bill would remove the voter's party designation from a bar code that is printed on all envelopes that are used to return completed absentee ballots.

Sampson said her bill helps lower the risk that an absentee ballot will be tampered with or destroyed, while protecting voters' right to keep their party affiliation confidential.

"Clearly, allowing that designation lends itself to have the opportunity to tamper with that ballot if there was some nefarious intent by somebody," Sampson said. The increased use of absentee ballots in 2020 brought the issue to light, she said, and many voters were concerned that their party affiliation was displayed on the outside of the pre-addressed ballot return envelope.

Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, is proposing a bill that would have Maine adopt a system to verify absentee voter signatures, a practice required in a handful of states.

Maine voters must sign the back of the return envelope of their absentee ballots, and state law requires that the signature match the signature on a voter's absentee ballot application. However, ballots are rarely rejected because of signature problems, and voters can apply for and receive ballots in Maine both online and over the phone with no signature requirement.

Other bills would put into law temporary policies that were adopted last fall to help protect against the spread of COVID-19. Rep. Kyle Bailey, D-Gorham, is sponsoring legislation that codifies the drop boxes that many towns and cities installed for absentee ballots in last November's election.

Another bill offered by Bailey would codify an online absentee ballot tracking system that went into effect in 2020. The system enabled voters to confirm that their absentee ballot requests had been accepted, mailed to them, and then received by local election officials after the completed ballot had been returned.

Several other bills dealing with absentee ballots would expand the time allowed for early processing of ballots by local election officials or expand the period when a voter can apply for an absentee ballot. The processing time for absentee ballots was expanded from four days before Election Day to up to seven days before under an executive order issued by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills because demand on the system during the pandemic had increased to record levels.

A measure sponsored by Rep. Tiffany Roberts, D-South Berwick, would incorporate that expanded processing time into state law.

Other proposals by lawmakers include a repeat bill by Faulkingham — whose legal name is William Robert Faulkingham — that allows a candidate for office in Maine to use their nickname on the ballot. Faulkingham got this measure through the previous Legislature, only to have it vetoed by Mills last January.

In her veto message Mills said the use of nicknames could be easily abused by candidates to manipulate voters by adopting monikers like "the People's Hero" or "the Greatest."

Other states also will face a number of proposals to alter their voter registration and election laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, the details are unclear, as few states have hit their deadlines for submitting legislative proposals.

The conference said New Hampshire has 26 voting-related bills on its legislative docket, while Texas has at least 60 and there are 41 bills on the agenda in Montana. In 2020, lawmakers in 43 states, Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico passed 223 bills dealing with elections and voting, many of them in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

©2021 the Portland Press Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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