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Politics

Report: Maine's Democracy Is Strong, But Barriers Exist In Poorer Parts Of State

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Robert F. Bukaty
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Associated Press file
In this Oct. 25, 2012 file photo, voters cast their votes through absentee ballots for the November election at the town hall in Cape Elizabeth.

This week, the League of Women Voters of Maine and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections released their latest State of Maine Democracy report. It's an assessment of the health of Maine's government, from voting rights to money in politics, as seen by those two organizations.

This year's edition concludes that, compared to other states, Maine fares relatively well in terms of voter access and turnout. But there are several challenges, including for voters in areas of higher poverty and for residents lacking internet access.

Anna Kellar, executive director of both of the groups, spoke with Maine Public's Robbie Feinberg about the report.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Feinberg: Let's start off with a big picture look at this report, if we can. How do you define the state of democracy in Maine and what are some of the biggest takeaways from this report on how Maine is doing?

Kellar: Well, our overall takeaways are that the state of Maine's democracy is strong, doing very well on many indicators, including voter participation and the conduct of our elections. And at the same time, we're still seeing some significant gaps. So for example, Mainers who are in parts of the state with higher poverty rates are much less likely to vote. We see huge disparities between the wealthiest and the poorest parts of the state in terms of voter participation. We're also seeing some significant gaps in terms of who has access to good media sources. There are over 100,000 Mainers who live in media deserts and have very little access to good-quality information.

You mentioned those disparities in voter participation between the wealthy and poor parts of Maine. And you see that in the report — House districts in places like Falmouth had turnout near 90% in 2016, but in parts of Lewiston, the turnout was far below that. Do we know what's causing that?

There are a number of factors we think are contributing. So one of the reasons is access. When you look at what barriers there are for people participating, being able to have the time to get to the polling place, access to the stamps or a printer that you might have needed to get your absentee ballot in. People who are working multiple jobs, people who have high rental instability and move frequently are less likely to know where their polling place is or be as connected to the community in those ways. So we see a lot of the common barriers that keep people from being able to vote with people who are in poverty often face many of those at the same time.

Across the country, we're seeing this growing wave of bills that would change voting laws in several states. Do those trends concern you and could they potentially spread to Maine?

We are seeing some of those bills in Maine as well that are asking for voter restrictions. We are going to be fighting back against a number of those negative bills that look to repeal Maine's no-excuse absentee voting laws or require photo IDs. These are things that I think we will see fail in the Legislature this year. Even though on the national level, and sometimes in the state Legislature, these issues are really partisan, once you get down to actually talking to voters, Mainers like having lots of options of ways to vote. People have a really high degree of trust in their local election administrators. And so we have that basis of real community trust in the infrastructure of our elections that can help us push back against some of these fear-based attempts to make it harder to vote.

As you mentioned, Maine seems to be doing relatively well in terms of a lot of indicators for voting access. You point out high voter turnout, automatic voter registration, and that the state allows those who've been convicted of crimes to vote. But when you look at some of these areas where our state is still lacking, what do you think are some of the steps that could be taken to change them?

So there are a couple of area. On the policy side, we are noting the need for modernization and strengthening of our elections infrastructure. So like I said, Maine has pretty good voting laws and voting rights access. But we still don't have online voter registration. Maine is actually really an outlier there. And we've had decades really of underinvestment in our secretary of state and our town clerks and their ability to pull off elections with good voter information, real access for people. They work very hard, but they're not getting those sort of real modern resources that they need to be communicating well with voters. And so in the gap of those official sources and the gap of media, we see a real opening for misinformation, disinformation and people feeling like they don't have enough information at all to participate. So, online voter registration and that overall modernization of our elections infrastructure is one of the most important things that we can be doing to strengthen Maine democracy.