2014-11-17 / Commentary

Early Voting Would Help Democracy


Douglas Rooks Douglas Rooks One aspect of the Nov. 4 election should give us all pause, regardless of which political party we identify with. The 2014 election saw the lowest voter turnout of any mid-term election since 1942, when many Americans were probably too busy fighting World War II.

It’s unclear what our excuse was this time, but nationally, just 36 percent of eligible voters turned out.

Maine was the exception. A hotly contested, year-long governor’s race did bring out the troops, with an estimated 59 percent participating.

That was far ahead of our peers; only five other states even cracked 50 percent, meaning that a minority of the electorate made the decisions in the other 44 states.

Since the Republican Party has recently decided its shameful mission is to suppress the vote through a wide variety of means, believing this to be to its advantage, it’s not surprising to see that 30 percent voted in Mississippi, 29 percent in Tennessee, 28 percent in Indiana, and 28 percent in Texas.

But the malaise was also evident in “blue” states that made no specific efforts to discourage voting. Turnout was 36 percent in Pennsylvania, 36 percent in Ohio, just 31 percent in California, and a shocking 29 percent in New York, once known as the best base to launch a presidential bid.

Even North Carolina — where a determined, bipartisan effort over 20 years boosted voter turnout well above the national average — fell back to just 40 percent. North Carolina, as it happens, now also has one of the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, installed by a newly Republican legislature.

It’s true that in a few cases, an exciting race or the perception that a lot’s at stake, boosts turnout. But what can we say about the world’s oldest democracy when the vast majority of its citizens can’t be bothered to vote except during a presidential year? And though there was a relatively healthy electorate in 2008, with 61 percent voting, and 2012, with 58 percent, the trend there, too, has been downward.

The easy answer is to blame parties and politicians for not giving us choices we like — too easy. Ultimately, the success of our democracy depends on all of us, the citizens, and not those brave enough to put their names on the ballot.

It’s probably too much to expect Congress to act, at least in the short term, to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s absurd and malicious voting decisions since 2010. These include the Citizens United case and successors, which essentially struck down any limits on campaign contributions, meaning the rich have a far greater voice than anyone else. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act, suppression of Arizona’s Clean Elections Act, which also diminished Maine’s, and finally, the Hobby Lobby case, which made corporations living, breathing personalities capable of political action, rather than legal fictions, have all done violence to the concept of equal participation.

So perhaps we need to start closer to home. Maine Republicans, unfortunately, attempted to join the voter suppression bandwagon by barring Election Day voter registration, but the law was reversed by a wide margin in a 2011 people’s veto referendum.

The message was clear: Mainers believe in voting rights, and most prefer they be enhanced, not diminished. They may get a chance to do that in 2015, when a referendum is expected to be on the ballot restoring aspects of the Clean Elections Act that courts and legislatures have chipped away.

Legislators, too, could show they got the message by adopting another improvement known as early voting.

Maine does have unlimited absentee voting, but there are several disadvantages for voters and election officials alike. Unlike early voting states, Mainers must apply for ballots and, when they cast them, ballots can’t legally be counted until election day, putting a burden on town clerks and volunteers.

The other drawback is that addressed envelopes must, by law, follow the ballots, so there’s inherently less privacy that most voters rightly expect.

In the last session, the constitutional amendment required to allow early voting fell just short of the necessary two-thirds. It would be an act of good faith for legislators to send the amendment to the voters next year, which would allow towns and cities to offer opportunities to cast ballots just as we do on Election Day, but at times more convenient to overscheduled lives.

We’ll never agree on all the issues that come before the Legislature, nor would that be healthy. But surely we can come together on the right to vote, and commit to make voting as broadly representative as possible.


Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 30 years. He can be reached at drooks@tds.net.

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