This Constitutional Change Would Make It Easier For Mainers With Disabilities To Help Questions Get

Oct 20, 2019

A Mainer with a disability preventing them from signing a petition for themselves has not been able to help referendum questions get to the ballot in the past, but a constitutional amendment voters will decide on in November would change that.

Mainers will decide Nov. 5 whether alternative signatures can be used to sign a citizens’ initiative or people’s veto petition. People with physical disabilities are already allowed to use alternative signatures on forms to register to vote, change political parties, or help candidates get on the ballot by signing nomination petitions or contributing under the Maine Clean Election Act.

This amendment would be among the narrowest constitutional fixes in recent history, though most recent amendments have largely been housekeeping items. Richard Langley, the deputy director of Disability Rights Maine, said the advocacy group has not heard of anyone hampered by current law, but he said “could see it coming up.”

Alternative signatures can be applied through a stamp or an authorized Maine-registered voter signing on the person’s behalf in their presence and at their direction. That signature needs to be registered with Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office. Currently, if a person uses an alternative signature to sign a citizens initiative or people’s veto petition, their signature would be considered invalid, Dunlap spokeswoman Kristen Muszynski said.

Freshman state Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, who sponsored the bill that put the measure on the ballot, said he brought it forward after speaking with Dunlap, a Democrat. He said Maine’s voting system is relatively accessible — citing same-day registration — but that it’s a legislator’s job to make sure no one is being excluded.

Langley said it’s an important housekeeping item but a narrow one in the fight to ensure voting access for people with disabilities. He said there are still “various loose ends” in state law that can make it difficult for people with disabilities to vote.

The biggest problems, he said, are accessibility — such as old town halls that have not been updated to comply with the federal American with Disabilities Act or accessible voting systems not being set up properly — or voting officials not knowing what’s allowed.

Constitutional amendments have been largely successful in Maine, with 173 passing since 1834 and 29 defeated at referendum. The last one to fail in 2009 would have increased the amount of time municipalities have to complete a review of direct initiatives in Maine from five to 10 days.

They have been ineffective in advancing voting rights for people with mental disabilities. Two efforts in 1997 and 2000 to strike a provision in the Maine Constitution barring people “under guardianship for reasons of mental illness” from voting were defeated at the ballot box.

That provision has been ignored since a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional in 2001. Maine is now one of 22 states that bar voting only if a judge has determined a person lacks the capacity to vote, according to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.