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Maine considers new protections for ballots, voting machines, and election workers

William Henry heads to the ballot box after making his selections during early voting, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
William Henry heads to the ballot box after making his selections during early voting, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine.

Inspired by the ongoing efforts of pro-Trump activists to re-litigate the 2020 presidential election, Maine lawmakers are considering a bill aimed at preventing the seizure and corruption of election equipment and voter data.

The proposal is a direct response to so-called “audits" of presidential election results in Republican-controlled states such as Arizona, where Trump loyalists embarked on an expensive effort to find fraudulent ballots in a county that helped tip the election to President Joe Biden.

The fallout also continues form a case in Mesa County, Colorado where a Republican election clerk is accused of allowing an unauthorized person to observe a routine software update of voting machines, resulting in the posting of sensitive information by a QAnon conspiracy theorist.

In both instances the voting equipment had to be replaced at the cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, says those breeches of voter data and equipment came at the expense of the public’s trust in elections.

"L.D. 1779 is a safeguard against election subversion and will help prevent problems that other states have seen where the integrity of ballots and equipment has been compromised," Bellows said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Teresa Pierce, of Falmouth, tightens existing ballot custody rules and prohibits election clerks from turning over voting machines or devices to activists unless authorized by the secretary of state.

During Wednesday's public hearing before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, the bill received support from the Maine Town and City Clerks' Association, as well as the League of Women Voters, and the ACLU of Maine.

The local affiliate of the conservative group Concerned Women for America opposed the measure. The Group's Penny Morrel says it gives the secretary of state too much power.

"Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," she said.

The bill tightens but does not change current custody provisions, which allow the governor, secretary of state, either branch of the Legislature or a court to inspect ballots and voting data.

Supporters of the bill also backed another proposal that would make it a Class D crime to interfere or harass an election official.

That too was backed by the state clerk's association, which noted that at least one municipal clerk in Maine received a death threat after the 2020 election.

Reuters recently reported that nationwide, there were more than 100 Trump-inspired threats of violence against election workers and a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice found that one in three election workers now feel unsafe doing their jobs.

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