After the restoration of election-day registration in Maine, what about voter id?

With Maine people having chosen to preserve election day registration by a landslide, 3-2 margin, there’s been some talk of the Maine Legislature and Governor pursuing new voter identification requirements.

Since I have no Crystal Ball, I won’t predict what will happen. But here are some political and policy considerations:

1. There’s no evidence of a problem that voter identification laws would solve.

The usual rule for policy analysis is that new policies, each of which carries costs, are needed if there’s a demonstrated problem. A Maine way of saying that is “If It’s Not Broke, Don’t Fix It.”

Opponents of election day registration tried mightily to demonstrate the Maine’s voting system had real problems with real fraud. They failed to do so. Future arguments for future restrictions may harken back to the stale, disproven claims about the Maine voting system.

Moreover, politically effective supporters of voter id would have to be credible messengers, something which relies on citizens’ judgments based on past behavior. I leave it Maine readers to decide if they think the most prominent opponents of election day registration have gained or lost credibility. One thing that’s clear is that the national and state “studies” by advocates of voter identification have major flaws which have been discussed nationally and within Maine.

2. There’s no evidence that Maine people want it.

In their vote on Question 1, Maine people demonstrated they did not want election-day access to the ballot limited.

As far as I know, there is only one public poll about Mainers’ views of voter identification. Conducted by the Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) the poll found 56% support for such a provision. As this blog and others have discussed, this poll had problems in sampling and question wording.

However, we can look at how that poll performed on election day registration and use that to benchmark its findings on citizens’ views toward voter identification. Admittedly, this is a rather rough take, as it is based on MHPC’s low-quality instrument, but here goes.

The MHPC found 53% opposed to retaining election day registration and 56% in support of a voter identification law. The vote in opposition to ending election day registration was 40%, 13 percentage points less than MHPC’s finding. If we subtract that 13% from the 56% the MHPC said supports voter id, this would indicate that 43% of the public support those laws.

3. A voter id rule would be costly.

This sort of rule can cost a good deal of money because the state can’t charge citizens for the identifications they require for voting. If there was a charge, it would constitute a poll tax. Thus a voter id rule would mean that more people need these documents, thus raising the cost, while the state would not be able to take in the revenue it had from drivers’ licenses.

Assuming that other documents would be needed to get these ids, such as passports or birth certificates, the state might be on the hook for those costs as well.

In tough economic times, with so many pressures on the budget, this may be a tough sell.

4. The next election season looms.

With the 2012 election coming up, legislators and legislative leaders may not want to revisit voting rules. Instead, they will likely wish to concentrate on other issues that are more important to voters, involving the economy and jobs.

One possible indicator of a political shift in Maine arises from the results for the one November special election. House district 24 tends to be solidly Republican, but this year the Republican won the three-way race with a plurality of 49%. While special elections can be quirky, they often presage political shifts and politicos closely monitor their vote totals and outcomes.

In addition, given Mainers’ propensity for civility and the establishment of a new Maine political organization focused on working across party lines, these legislators are likely to want to demonstrate bipartisan policy solutions. For Senate President Kevin Raye, who is exploring a run for Congress, and others, these may constitute a significant incentive to move away from such a partisan issue.

A final thought: The political benefits to some from the national effort to limit voting in states have not gone away. By restricting the composition of the electorate — shaping who votes — some are advantaged. It’s likely these conservative funders and organizations will be interested in having Maine take up and pass voter id. However, given the initial difficulty in getting the Legislature to end election-day registration, the smashing success of the People’s Veto, and the other issues described above, these individuals and groups face new challenges.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.