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Maine House Speaker's Bill Would Implement Automatic Voter Registration

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
House speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, addresses lawmakers as the Maine Legislature reconvenes Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, at the State House in Augusta, Maine.

Most Maine adults could be automatically registered to vote beginning in 2022 if the Legislature passes a new bill this session, sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport.The proposal would add Maine to the list of more than a dozen states that have adopted some form of automatic voter registration, a method that supporters say increases voter turnout and political participation.

In most states, including Maine, eligible voters who go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain a license are asked if they would like to register to vote at the same time.

Gideon's measure - loosely modeled after an Oregon law implemented three years ago - would register them automatically.

"Let's say it's time for you to go get a new driver's license," Gideon says. "So you go to your bureau of motor vehicles. You provide the necessary documentation to receive your license. This same information would also prove if you're eligible to vote."

That information would then be shared with the state's central voter registration. Those who are registered would then receive a notice that allows them to opt-out and halt their voter registration.

"It would be the first time we do this in Maine, but we would not be the first state to do it," Gideon says.

If Gideon's bill passes, Maine would join a number of other states that are, effectively, automating and overhauling a registration system that was implemented at the federal level in 1993 through the passage of the National Voter Registration Act.

The law required most states to provide citizens with an opportunity to register to vote when applying for, or renewing, a driver's license - and that's where the term “motor voter” originated.

Over 30 percent of all voter registration applications originated at a state department of motor vehicles in 2016 - or roughly 25 million people - according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

But in Maine, the motor voter system is paper-based, and voter registrations have to be shuffled between municipal clerks, the state's Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Secretary of State's Office.  

At Wednesday's public hearing, Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn took no position on Gideon's bill, but said the current system needs improvement. "This has become a very labor intensive and inefficient process both for our office and for the municipalities."

Flynn said her office generally backs automatic voter registration.  

Flynn also suggested a change to Gideon's proposal, which, like Maryland and Massachusetts, would allow the governor and secretary of state to designate other agencies besides the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to register voters.

Flynn said it might be better to follow the elad of most other states and begin implementation with just the BMV.

Most of those who testified Wednesday supported the bill, and many cited a study by the Brennan Center for Justice showing that states with automatic voter registration witnessed sharp increases in voter registration.

Gina Coppens, a volunteer for the League of Women Voters of Maine, said automatic voter registration, or AVR, will increase turnout and civic engagement.

"The first step toward participation in elections is registering to vote. AVR will make it easier for many Maine eligible Maine citizens to take that first step," she said.

Gideon's proposal also lowers the age at which young adults can pre-register to vote, from age 17 to age 16.

That change also allows young prospective voters to enroll in a political party - a process that the Pew Research Center and other studies have noted tends to bake in a person's party affiliation over time.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hold work sessions on Gideon's bill in the coming weeks before sending the proposal to the full Legislature for voters.


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