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Maine Voter ID Bill Divides Republicans, Democrats

AUGUSTA, Maine - A bill that would require Mainers to present a photo ID before voting has run into the same partisan snag that has killed its predecessors.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted 6-6 on the bill, with Democrats opposing it and Republicans supporting it.

Democrats say the bill seeks to eliminate a problem that studies show is largely non-existent: in-person voter impersonation.  And Winthrop Democrat Craig Hickman said the bill makes it harder for minorities, the elderly and the poor to vote.

"On its face, from 30,000 feet, it makes sense. But how it's implemented and applied is discriminatory," he says.

But Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason said requiring photo ID will ensure the integrity of Maine elections.

"Our right to vote is precious and it's something that ought to be protected," Mason says.

In 2012 a commission headed by Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers chose not to recommend voter ID, in part because it could reduce voter participation by 12 percent.

Seventeen other states have some sort of photo ID requirement. Among those, seven are considered strict because they don't allow someone to sign an affidavit that would allow them to cast a provisional ballot if they don't have photo ID. Maine is among 17 states in which residents don't have to present any documents to vote.

Maine lawmakers have seen dozens of voter ID proposals over the past decade. There are several related bills in other states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There are also bills to enact residency requirements, including one in Maine that would require college students living in a dormitory to present a motor vehicle registration or tax bill before voting. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, was scheduled for a work session on Friday, but tabled by the VLA committee.

According to a 2014 analysis by the Washington Post, there were 31 credible instances of voter impersonation fraud out of a more than a billion ballots. Yet, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are dozens of anti-fraud bills in GOP-controlled state legislatures across the country.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.