Words to live by: Protect the vote

Talk about timing.

The Republican-inspired Commission to Study the Conduct of Elections in Maine last week held the first of eight public hearings aimed at ferreting out fraud in Maine’s election system.

At the same time, Maine’s GOP continued waging war with itself over charges of fraud in the election of the state’s delegates to this week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa.

The former involves all Maine voters, while the latter, thankfully, is strictly a party matter. But if the two parallel developments offer a takeaway for Maine’s battered Republican Party, it’s this: Before you tell us all how to fix our (allegedly) broken election process, Maine GOP, heal thyself.

A little history about the commission: It grew out of a failed attempt last spring by the Legislature’s Republican majority to pass a law that would require photo identification before voters get a ballot — one of many such measures sweeping statehouses throughout the nation.

Unable to muster sufficient support for the so-called "Voter ID" bill (and, in all likelihood, facing a people’s veto similar to the one last November that undid the Legislature’s scuttling of same-day voter registration), cooler heads in Augusta agreed to shelve the proposal. Instead, lawmakers directed Secretary of State Charlie Summers to undertake a top-to-bottom review of Maine’s election procedures.

To his credit, Summers resisted any temptation to pack the commission with ideologues intent on raising the hurdles between Mainers and their voting booths.

Rather, he assembled a panel of widely esteemed public figures who can be counted upon to chart their own course between now and when they issue their final report in February.

We have Chairman John Atwood, a former Superior Court justice; Linda Cohen, former city clerk in Portland and South Portland; Tim Wilson, special adviser to Seeds of Peace and director of its Maine Seeds program; Larry Willey, the former mayor of Bangor; and Paula Silsby, Maine’s former U.S. attorney.

"Our mandate is to make legislative recommendations," said Atwood in an interview following Thursday evening’s two-hour-plus forum. "It’s far too early to indicate what those might be."

Still, if the commission’s kickoff hearing, in Augusta, was any indication, those recommendations could well make it easier, not tougher, to cast a ballot in a Maine election.

In all, 19 people from a crowd of just over 50 stepped up to the microphone to share their thoughts with the commission. While Fairfield Town Clerk Christine Keller warned about "holes in the system" that can occasionally leave a voter on more than one municipal roll at a time, not one speaker advocated outright for a voter ID requirement.

Instead, they explained why such a measure would make voting unduly difficult — if not downright impossible — for elderly citizens with no access to their birth certificates, women who have changed their name because of marriage or divorce, even homeless folks who, despite the lack of a permanent roof over their heads, still have a constitutional right to vote.

"To be able to vote is something that keeps you connected to your community — something that is very important to the homeless community," noted Thomas Ptacek of Homeless Voices for Justice, which for the past 17 years has helped more than 2,000 homeless Mainers register and cast a ballot.

"We don’t want to see men and women who are from Maine and are in the worst situation of their lives lose the right to vote."

Of all the speakers, the nail was perhaps best hit on the head by John Paterson of Freeport, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. He told the commission that an utter lack of voter-fraud evidence in Maine and beyond suggests that voter ID laws and similar measures constitute "a solution in search of a problem."

"That’s not just a slogan," noted Paterson, citing research by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice that illustrates the suppressive impact such legislation has on voter turnout. "It’s a real, genuine concern that I think you honestly need to think about."

And think about they will, promised Chairman Atwood, as the commission traverses the state for seven more hearings between now and late November.

After last week’s gathering, Atwood said he’d spent the previous day or two reading up on election issues nationwide and was surprised to see polling data indicating a "vast majority" of Americans now favor voter ID laws.

"But one of the things that we need to remember here is that we’re focused on Maine, which has got, I think, a far better track record in terms of administering elections than most other states," observed Atwood. "So I’m not really persuaded, at least at this point, about what national studies and opinion polls say. What we really need to do is hear from people in Maine as to what they want for Maine elections."

Ah, a voice of reason. Just what Maine needs at a time when the Republican Party’s 2012 national platform is expected to include not only photo IDs to obtain a ballot, but also proof of citizenship to register in the first place.

That would be the same party that last week threw out half of the Ron Paul delegates from Maine because of what it called "serious credentialing, ballot and floor security issues" at last May’s state GOP convention.

The commission’s next hearing will be at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Portland Public Library’s Rines Auditorium.

We now take you back to Tampa …

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at