Answers to every question you may have about your right to vote and poll access in Maine
Election Day is quickly approaching. It may not be as big of an election year as perhaps a presidential year or even next year, when Mainers go to the polls to decide who should be governor. But there are several items on the ballot, some things have changed, and there are things that each voter might need to know.
All Things Considered host Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows about this year's election.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Bellows: There are three questions on the ballot statewide this year. Of course, there are also local and county elections in some parts of the state. And folks should know that they can turn out and vote right now. Voting is happening as we speak. As of Oct. 21, we know that approximately 65,000 absentee ballots have been requested. And just over 20,500 voters have returned those absentee ballots.
Mitchell: How do people request and return ballots?
This year, like last year, you can request a ballot online. And 2020 was the first year that Maine used absentee ballot drop boxes across the state. The legislature made those permanent this year with a new law that went into effect this month, October. So municipalities across the state have secure absentee ballot drop boxes that people can use.
People can also use, of course, the U.S. Postal Service, but people should be aware that the Postal Service earlier this year announced service times have been somewhat delayed. And so we really encourage people to request their absentee ballot and return that as soon as they can. They can go to their municipal office during municipal business hours, and vote in person. That's called in-person absentee voting. Ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.
How can people check up on or track their ballot?
Another innovation from 2020 was online absentee ballot request and tracking. So if you are making an online absentee ballot request that is automatic, it connects with the municipal clerks, you will receive your absentee ballot and then you can track its progress. You can ensure that the request has been received and approved. Once you return your ballot, you can see when that ballot arrives and when it is accepted. So that's a really exciting measure of security for voters.
Can you give us a Voting 101 lesson? Some people will be registering and voting for the first time.
So first, let's talk registration, because qualifications for voting vary across states, but Maine is unique. Just Maine and Vermont have in our Constitution that every citizen of the state has the right to vote. You never lose your right to vote, regardless of your status. Regardless of a history of incarceration, you never lose your right to vote. So the qualifications to vote in Maine are that the person must be a citizen of the United States, that they must be at least 18 years old, and that they must have established and maintained residency here. And so that is one area that students sometimes get caught up on, wondering if they are residents of the state of Maine, and the courts have found in our state that if you are a student at a Maine college or university, you have the choice to declare your residency in Maine and to decide that you want to register to vote in Maine. It is 100% legal for students at Maine universities and colleges, who are citizens, who are 18 years old to register to vote here. So we want every student to be aware of that.
And then the second piece to that is that you definitely have to demonstrate your identity when you register. And sometimes people say, 'Oh, we don't have voter ID in Maine.' No, we don't require that you show a particular ID at the polls. But we do require that you show identity in order to register to vote. And so that's why it's so exciting to expand the documentation that's available, like a student ID. That is new as of Monday, Oct. 18, the use of a student ID from a Maine college or university for purposes of identification under the law. So that's really exciting. Maine has always permitted students who are residents at our colleges and universities to declare their residency here in the state of Maine, and to be able to use that student ID as proof of identity is really important to lower a barrier for to vote.
What about people who are experiencing homelessness or have an extraordinary circumstance that makes it difficult to show residency?
In some rare cases — for example, people experiencing homelessness, or perhaps they've lost their documentation in a fire or some circumstance of that sort — Maine does allow a provision for a legal affidavit to be signed for proof of identity.
All people registering to vote in Maine must demonstrate residency. It can be a bill or a piece of mail that demonstrates your residency, it can be a lease, or any sort of documentation that demonstrates your physical residence. It cannot be a P.O. box. So that is a really important aspect of residency.
Someone who's experiencing homelessness can register to vote on the day that they choose to vote. If they were registered prior to experiencing homelessness in another jurisdiction, they should share that information with the clerk or registrar, and let people know where they were registered to vote before. If they're voting for the first time, they need to demonstrate proof of identity for voting purposes and residency, but residency may be at the shelter that they are staying in. Residency could be in a motel, for example, because they've not been able to find more permanent housing. So as long as they are living here in our state, and this is where they're living, they are not a visitor, they are not a tourist, that is absolutely valid. They may be living in an encampment, they may be living in a tent. We know that to be true here in our state. And so we want to recognize that just because you're experiencing homelessness, or just because you are in a nontraditional situation, if you are a resident of our state, if you are a citizen, you have that right to vote. And it's really important that we keep those barriers to people experiencing homelessness as low as possible.
So are election volunteers and people staffing the polls educated in how to handle nonstandard situations, where someone may not have the documentation?
Yes. We actually just did a two-day training with clerks from across the state to go through the details on all aspects of the upcoming election, including registration. This is something the Elections Division does every election year. They provide training to clerks. We also have professional staff in the Elections Division who are available to work with new clerks to make sure that they understand the law and the rules and that they are working to assist voters and registering to vote. And what's really important is that we, in Maine, want to make voting as accessible and convenient as possible, while maintaining security.
A moment ago you mentioned that people in Maine can vote regardless of incarceration history. Can you expand on that? What about people who are actively incarcerated?
Yes, someone who is incarcerated or has experienced incarceration still has the right to vote in Maine if their origin is Maine. So it's important to recognize that the right to vote in Maine and Maine elections is for Maine residents and Maine citizens. So if the place of origin for the person incarcerated is Maine, then they never lose the right to vote. They have the right to vote. And the Maine State Prison and the county jails facilitate absentee voting for people who are currently incarcerated.
If you were incarcerated in Maine, but you were say, visiting the state from some other state when you were arrested, can you then can you register your address as the Maine State Prison since you're a resident here?
No. So your place of origin prior to incarceration needed to be in Maine. You do not gain the right to vote in Maine by virtue of incarceration in Maine.
You may not be eligible to vote at all, depending on the laws in your home state. If you do come from a state that allows incarcerated people to vote, that would need to be arranged on an absentee basis. But many other states do not allow inmates to vote.
What do people who may be living with a disability or impairment need to know about voting?
Maine has "motor voter," so people can register to vote at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. You can also fill out a registration card and supply the appropriate documentation for people living in residential care facilities, like nursing homes. Clerks, under the law, will go into certain types of residential care facilities to ensure that residents of those facilities have the right to vote. And same-day voter registration applies in those situations as well. Someone who's unable to sign a registration card because of a disability can use a signature stamp or authorize another person to sign on their behalf under the law. An individual who assists an applicant, prepares and signs the registration application or form, must be acting at the applicant's direction, and it has to be in presence of the applicant as well as one additional witness.
So hypothetically, then, an older person who has a hand tremor that prevents them from signing their forms. That person can have another person sign on their behalf?
Yes, but they would need to have a third person present as well. And it would be important that that person wasn't associated or employed by any candidate. The law is very specific that it can't be someone who would have undue influence over the registrant. But in most cases, yes, if someone can't sign, an authorized person can do so at the voter's direction, with a witness. When you are assisting someone, anyone, with absentee voting or registering, you should talk to the clerk to make sure that the right procedures are being followed. It is really important that the clerk have knowledge that the voter themselves is requesting this assistance. So our best piece of advice is for anyone looking to assist any other person in absentee voting or registration procedures, to have a phone conversation or meet in person with a municipal clerk and walk through the requirements and access any appropriate forms through the clerk. Maine is unique in that our elections are administered by more than 500 municipal clerks all across the state. And it's really important that anyone looking to assist anybody else reach out to those clerks to do that.
Is there any plan or direction in Maine to create purely online, remote voting for some voters whose disabilities make it difficult to vote in person?
Yes, we are so excited about this. So last year in collaboration with Disability Rights Maine, we developed an online voting system for people with print disabilities. We updated that system this year and worked with representatives from the community of advocates for people with disabilities to test the system and make sure that it was truly accessible. So we have in addition to the online absentee ballot requests, we have an online accessible ballot for people with print disabilities. There is a self certification on the website. You must attest to being blind or otherwise disabled, and that your disability prevents or substantially limits you from being able to privately and independently complete a paper absentee ballot. So you, as an individual, may only use it if you are certifying that your disability prevents you from using a paper absentee ballot. This is important because the paper ballot is the gold standard in election security, having that tangible record. Now, with the online accessible ballot, it does produce a printable record that is is part of the system. But we do not make that available to just anyone and that certification is the first step in the process. It is a violation of Maine election law to use the system if you do not, in fact, have that disability. And we are not asking for your medical records. Because again, the power to vote lies with the voter and it's really important, our goal is that every Maine citizen be able to exercise their right to vote.
What about a remote, online voting system for all voters? Is that something that's on the horizon?
The legislature had a public hearing on a bill to put in place online voting for all voters. And certainly that is something that around the world, some jurisdictions engage in. The reason that the paper ballot is the gold standard in election security is that paper can't be hacked. Paper can be recounted. Paper can be audited. I think at this point in time, given the very real cybersecurity threats to our election systems and active attempts to interfere in our democracy by foreign adversaries, it would not be wise to move away from a paper ballot to a pure electronic form of voting for everyone. And even as we improve our election security and improve the strength of our systems, those who would seek to compromise those systems are also working to make improvements in their attacks. So I would be cautious. There are some areas of modern life where technology is a huge help. And there are some places where what we're doing works really well and doesn't require modification or change.
What voter laws do people need to know about who may have other disabilities?
So we have worked with municipalities to enhance physical accessibility of voting places under the Americans with Disabilities Act. So every election location is required to be accessible to people who use a wheelchair. We also have what's called ExpressVote Universal Voting System. It's our accessible voting system. It's a ballot marking device at the polls that allows individuals with disabilities to vote with privacy and independence. Using a tabletop unit, the ExpressVote machine, voters can navigate through their ballot using a touchscreen or keypad and an audio interface. And the ExpressVote generates that printed ballot with the voter's choices that can be used with the traditional scanners. This is a machine that is certified by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. It's not connected to the network and it doesn't track or store the voter choices. So those are some of the ways — the ExpressVote Universal Voting Systems at the polling places on Election Day, the online accessible ballot that is online for people with disabilities, or absentee voting with third party assistance that is permitted under the law.
That system you just described. Is that available at every polling place in the state?
What laws surround voting for people who have dementia, mental illness, or may be under guardianship?
If you're a citizen, and you're over 18, and you're a resident of Maine, you never lose your right to vote. Interestingly, the Maine Constitution had a discriminatory provision that was struck down in the courts that initially did place limitations on people with mental disabilities. And here I can read from the constitution: 'Every citizen of the United States at the age of 18 years and upwards, excepting persons under guardianship for reasons of mental illness, having his or her residence established in the state shall be an elector.' So there it is, Article Two of the Maine constitution: every citizen of the United States age 18 and upwards. The provision in the constitution 'excepting persons under guardianship' was actually found by the courts to be impermissible under the U.S. Constitution, and principles of equal protection. So the states cannot have provisions in our constitutions that conflict with federal law or the federal constitution. It's called the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution. The state constitutions cannot contradict that. So for that reason, even though our constitution has never been amended at the state level, to strike that discriminatory language, that language was found to be unconstitutional under the federal constitution. And so, as a result, in Maine, regardless of guardianship status, regardless of physical or mental disability, of any sort, you never lose your right to vote.
What if somebody does not understand a ballot question? I know that there are different partisan sides who would be very happy to try to explain it to you, but what resources exist without attempts to influence?
We provide a citizens guide to the referendum questions and elections every year that's available on our website. It's available in local libraries, we can send you a copy free of charge to your house. If you just call our offices, we are happy to make that available to anyone who requests it. Our telephone number is (207) 626-8400. That is my office, the phone rings right outside the door, and we will get you a copy of that guide and answer any questions you have about the election. And we do get questions from people every day. Now, we do not provide advice as to how to vote. We cannot do that. But in the citizen's guide, the office of the attorney general has provided an explanation of the questions. And we have included, as directed under the law, some simple one-page statements from proponents and opponents of the ballot questions. So the citizens guide is a great way to get informed before you walk into the polling booth. Of course, you're free to ask anyone you like what their opinions are. But once you walk into the polling place on Election Day, you cannot have someone with you in the polling booth telling you how to vote unless that person is providing authorized assistance in the mechanics of voting. And certainly no one at the polling place is going to provide you any information about the ballot question proponents and opponents. It's not permitted. At the polling place on Election Day, the expectation is that the voter has had that opportunity to do their homework ahead of time and try to make up their opinion before they go into the voting booth. A vote can't be challenged on the basis of being informed or not being informed. That's for the voter to decide whether they understand the question and the state is not going to prohibit someone from voting because of any suggestion that they didn't understand what they were voting on. We make an assumption that every citizen over age 18 is qualified to vote and can make that decision about whether they choose to vote or not.
So you are not allowed to have anyone with you in the booth. No further debate and discussion in the booth?
So, it is a violation of Maine law to try to influence people's vote within 250 feet of the polling place on Election Day. So electioneering has to happen prior to Election Day, or far away from the polling place. So certainly, we have a long history of candidates sometimes standing outside a polling place, saying, 'Thank you for being here today. Thank you for voting.' They do that under an assumption that people may know who they are, or may realize that they're on the ballot, but they're not allowed to say, please vote for me today. And similarly, people associated with referendum questions are not allowed to say, you know, 'Please vote yes on one or no one.' That's just not permitted, because Maine law is very clear that you cannot engage in advertising, you can't have signs right outside of the polling place for any cause. Now, we do permit signature collection for future referendum campaigns. And the signature collectors are permitted to have a sign on their table, if the warden in the polling place determines that's acceptable. But again, that sign can't make any reference, intentional or otherwise, anything that is on the ballot that day. So somebody might be collecting signatures for a future election. But if it has any connection to something that is happening in the current election, the signage cannot make that indication. And that signature collection has to happen as people are exiting the polling place so that they are not being unduly influenced. So same thing with people who are conducting polling for perhaps a newspaper or other entity, and that information can only be collected at the exit, and conversations about candidates or issues on the ballot, those are not permitted within 250 feet of the actual where voting is taking place because you don't want voters in the in the voting booths to be overhearing a conversation about how their neighbors just voted.
What about media and people, news media reporters and others? Inside the polling place and outside the polling place, with privacy, etc., what can they do and what can they not do?
So certainly media are able to film on Election Day, and even film activity on Election Day. What they are not permitted to do is go inside a polling booth with a person who is casting their vote. That is private. They are not allowed to film someone's ballot as it's going into the tabulator or the ballot box. They are not allowed to take pictures or film the personally identifying information of the incoming voter list. So media shots of the general polling place without revealing information about how an individual has voted or information about the voting list is permissible. But we do have a very transparent process. Poll watchers from both parties are allowed to be present at the polling place and watching who is coming into vote. They may challenge an individual voter — that's why people have to state their name, their residence and, if requested, their year of birth, if, for example, there are two people with the same name at the same residence. And poll watchers from both parties are permitted to be within earshot to hear that, so that if they have particular and specific knowledge that someone is not, in fact, Joe Smith, that they could challenge that voter and that voter's ballot. But that information has to be specific. They can't just challenge everybody that walks in from a certain street or certain area or of a certain race or ethnicity, gender or age. So we do have a very transparent process. The media can be present and can film on Election Day, but can't actually walk in with a person to watch them fill out their ballot. Or try to take a sneak peek of what that ballot says as it's going into the machine.
Anything else we need to know?
In Maine, we make voting as accessible as possible, for as many people as possible, at a time when other states may be rolling back voter accessibility laws. We want people to know if they eligible to vote, we will do everything we can to ensure there are no limitations from voting, whatever your circumstances. If you have questions, please contact us, contact your local clerk's office, and vote.