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Pulse Newsletter: As Election Experts Decry GOP Voting Restrictions Across Nation, Maine Loosens Them

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In this week’s newsletter: Maine bucks a national trend; ranked-choice voting expansion stalls again; Golden draws early GOP spending campaign; Mills mum on Hydro-Quebec bill.

Throughout the year the national spotlight has landed on the slew of bills in Republican-controlled state legislatures that seek to tighten voting rules, or in some cases, make it easier for partisan boards or judges to overturn election results.

The legislation has resulted in 22 new laws in 14 states through mid-May, according to the Brennan Center for Justice and marks a trend that followed last year’s election.

Maine is bucking that trend.

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In addition to advancing the perennial defeat of voter ID legislation, the Democratic-controlled Legislature this year has passed, or is on the verge of passing, a slate of bills that go in the opposite direction of their Republican counterparts.

While five new laws passed by GOP controlled legislatures this year tighten absentee balloting rules, Maine Democrats have backed a bill that creates a permanent absentee voting list for disabled voters and those over the age of 65.

Democrats are also poised to pass a bill that would make it easier for college students to vote by allowing them to use their college IDs to request a ballot rather than a utility bill or other proof of residence.

Another bill expands the use of the drop boxes utilized during the pandemic by allowing municipalities to place the drop boxes outside of a municipal office or polling location. Municipalities can also add drop boxes upon receiving approval by the Secretary of State 90 days before an election.

Roughly a dozen Republican bills in six states tighten voter registration rules, either by limiting same-day voter registration or by preemptively banning automatic voter registration. But Maine joined 20 other states and the District of Columbia when it passed an automatic voter registration law in 2019 -- although it isn’t expected to be in place until next year.

Its same-day registration law was enacted in 1973 and briefly repealed by the Republican controlled Legislature in 2011 before voters rejected that decision via a people’s veto referendum. This year, Maine Democrats are poised to expand voter registration even further by enacting a bill that would require the state to create an online voter registration portal.

Democrats are touting the changes, as well as their defeat of other proposals that mirror those introduced in Republican-controlled legislatures.

“As state lawmakers, we should be doing everything we can to make sure Maine people are able to participate in our elections and make their voices heard,” Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said in a written statement this week. “Efforts to drag national politics into Maine and make it harder for Maine people to vote do a disservice to the very people we are elected to represent. I may not always like the outcome of an election, but I know that whether or not my candidate won, the end result reflects the will of the people.”

The “national politics” that Jackson appeared to refer to is the GOP response to the 2020 election, which delivered the party defeats in both chambers of Congress and the presidency but resulted in big gains in the state legislatures that are crafting the new voting laws.

The GOP controls both chambers in 30 states, including new and traditional presidential battleground states like Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona and Texas.

If not for a last-minute walkout by Democrats, the Texas legislature was ready to pass a bill with a provision that would have allowed a judge to overturn an election result by lowering the bar to determine whether fraud occurred and without having to determine if fraudulent votes tipped the outcome.

Texas already has strict voting laws and its attorney general, Ken Paxton, recently admitted former President Donald Trump would have lost the state if Paxton’s office hadn’t successfully blocked counties from mailing out applications for mail-in ballots to registered voters.

Election law experts like Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, are sounding the alarm.

“You have to realize that there are two different issues going on at once,” Hasen recently told NPR. “One is voter suppression, making it harder for people to register and vote. But perhaps an even bigger danger is the danger of election subversion, the idea that we might make it easier for partisans to mess with how votes are counted and how election winners are declared. That's really the No. 1 thing on the agenda for 2022 and 2024.”

Meanwhile, Democrats are attempting to use the GOP’s push for new voting rules in their favor by mobilizing their voters and donors.

This week, shortly after Democratic lawmakers expanded voting access bills and blasted Republicans for voting against them, the Maine Senate Democratic Campaign Committee released a fundraising email that noted that a Democratic majority “will be the primary bulwark against a conservative GOP agenda that will most certainly include attacks on our voting rights.”

No ranked-choice voting expansion

Legislative proposals to expand the use of ranked-choice voting are on the verge of defeat.

One bill would have given voters the chance to use RCV in future gubernatorial elections by asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment to allow it.

The proposal failed to gain the supermajority needed in the House and Senate when Republicans unified against it.

Using RCV in gubernatorial contests was arguably a key reason why voters approved the landmark law in 2016, but the Maine Supreme Judicial Court later determined that the voting method conflicts with the state constitution, specifically in general election contests for governor.

That determination by the court is why RCV is currently only used in primary elections and federal races.

RCV advocates vowed to push a constitutional amendment, but those efforts have thus far failed because Republicans have been increasingly opposed to it ever since former GOP Congressman Bruce Poliquin lost his reelection race to Democratic challenger Jared Golden in 2018 after an RCV runoff.

The absence of RCV in the 2022 governor’s race is already creating some anxiety among Democrats who fear a repeat of the 2010 and 2014 contests won by former Gov. Paul LePage after the independent and Democratic candidates arguably split the center-left vote (The center-left split was not a problem for Gov. Janet Mills in 2018, who became the first candidate for governor to win a majority since 1966 despite a three-way contest.).

LePage has been talking about a third bid for governor since before he left office in 2018. He could make that run official as soon as July.

GOP targets Golden with TV hits

Democrats clung to a five-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020, but they’re expected to face more headwinds in the 2022 midterm elections, which have typically favored the party not in control of the White House.

That means Maine’s 2nd Congressional District will once again draw outsized attention from political groups seeking to influence voters.

The campaign is already underway. Golden, who won reelection last year, is expected to face a tougher challenge in 2022 -- and potentially a rematch with Poliquin.

His campaign has responded by significantly ramping up its fundraising efforts.

Republicans have been attacking him since January and a GOP-aligned group is intensifying the effort with a $350,000 TV ad buy.

Mills mum on Hydro-Quebec bill

A bill that could sideline Hydro-Quebec from the upcoming referendum on Central Maine Power’s controversial transmission project inched closer to passage this week.

However, it’s unclear if the governor will sign it.

The proposal, backed by Republicans and Democrats, aims to close a loophole in Maine election law that currently allows foreign-owned entities and companies to influence ballot campaigns with political ads.

Hydro-Quebec has responded by spending more than $10 million on political advertising that attempts to convince Maine voters that the transmission project is as good a deal for the state as it is for a company wholly owned by the government of Quebec.

Last week, Mills, who supports the transmission project, said on Maine Public’s call-in program that she hasn’t seen the final bill and didn’t know if it’s constitutional.

The constitutionality of the proposal was a central argument raised by lobbyists for CMP, Hydro-Quebec and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

A spokeswoman for Mills said Thursday that the governor had nothing new to add to her comments from last week.

The proposal had drawn support from advocacy groups who viewed it as a way to partially halt the flood of political advertising spawned by the 2010 Citizens United Decision. However, lawmakers tailored the bill to only prohibit spending by entities owned by foreign governments, rather than corporations with foreign ownership.

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