In the 2020 primary election, Maine resident Lynn Merrill, who is blind, was faced with an untenable choice: go to the polls and risk her health to vote or invite two volunteers to her home — one to fill out her ballot and the other to witness it. She ended up not voting, and she sued the state, rightfully so, to require an online absentee voting system for voters with print disabilities. By November 2020, a new online absentee voting system was in place that ensured Lynn and every other voter with print disabilities could vote from the comfort of their home.
No one should have to sue for the right to vote. Every American regardless of who they are or where they come should have the freedom and ability to cast their vote without barriers.
I ran for Maine Secretary of State after the 2020 presidential election for the same reason I served in the 2020 Electoral College — because I was truly frightened for our democracy. Even in a state like Maine, where we’re proud of our high voter turnout, not everyone was able to participate equally, just as Lynn’s story demonstrates.
So, what do we do to make voting easier and democracy more accessible for everyone? Here in Maine we’re working on a vision of a future where every voter is able to register and cast their vote at a time and place that works for them. We’ve been working on a series of pro-democracy reforms for a while now, and we’re winning.
We’re making voting more convenient. In 2020, 62% of Mainers voted absentee, in part because we allow voters to cast their absentee ballot in person or through the mail up to 30 days prior to Election Day. Now, we’re making absentee voting in the future even easier by promoting more absentee ballot drop boxes in more communities and codifying online absentee ballot tracking. We also passed a bill to allow election officials to process absentee ballots earlier.
We’re making voting more accessible. We’re proud of our new online system to allow voters with print disabilities to cast an electronic ballot. We’re working on automatic voter registration at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles branches, and we’re excited that implementing online voter registration to reach younger potential voters is on the horizon. We’re also moving forward with allowing student IDs to serve as a form of identification for purposes of voter registration. (Maine is proud to be one of the states that doesn’t require voter identification for voting.)
Our state Constitution requires that all citizens have the right to vote, including those who are currently or formerly incarcerated. Every major election, we partner with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) to conduct a voter registration drive at the Maine State Prison and make sure everyone who wants to can secure an absentee ballot.
If voting is truly a constitutional right preservative of all other rights, then it should not be denied to anyone, even those in prison or jail.
We also have same-day voter registration where Mainers can register to vote and cast their ballot on Election Day. We’ve been doing this since 1973 — even before we had a central voter registration system. It’s the ultimate safeguard against illegal voter purging because if a voter were to find herself erased from the voter roll, she could just re-register on Election Day.
Same-day voter registration in Maine was first enacted into law by a Republican-controlled legislature in 1973. Ironically, it was repealed by a Republican-controlled legislature in 2011. Fortunately, a grassroots campaign called Protect Maine Votes, supported by groups like the ACLU and the League of Women Voters, was able to restore same-day voter registration almost immediately through a “people’s veto,” a referendum measure that went to a statewide vote that fall. The people voted overwhelmingly in favor of keeping same-day voter registration. Democracy won.
And that’s what we see time and time again — when you put pro-democracy measures to a vote, the people are with us. That’s how Maine has advanced public financing for elections, otherwise known as Maine Clean Elections. It’s how we became the first state in the country to adopt ranked choice voting. Maine’s state motto is “Dirigo” which means “I lead, ” and when it comes to voting rights, we do.
But we know it’s not enough to advance voting rights in our state alone. It shouldn’t be easier to vote in Maine than Montana. Voting rights for our neighbors matter as much as our own, especially when the relic of white supremacy that is the Electoral College remains in place. We know that progress on everything we care about is contingent upon full and fair participation from all people.
The For the People Act (S. 1) builds upon these tried and true best practices adopted here in Maine and in other states like Minnesota and Colorado, who ranked first and second in the nation last year in voter turnout. The legislation has passed the House, but remains stalled in the Senate until ten Republicans come on board or Democrats end the filibuster.
Upset that Montana has ended same day voter registration? S. 1 would require it nationwide. Concerned about restrictions on early voting in Texas? S. 1 would set a floor for early voting of 15 days. Worried about the reduction of drop boxes in Georgia and Florida? S. 1 would require more drop boxes nationwide. S. 1 would stop these and many more terrible anti-voting provisions at the state level. And it would do so much more: The For the People Act represents a positive vision for the future — one where voting is more accessible, convenient and secure and democracy is easier for all.
I grew up poor — without electricity or running water until I was in the fifth grade. My grandmother, who is 101, was born in the year that white women first gained the right to vote. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities I’ve had along the way, and mindful of how things might be different if I had been born in a different place or time. But, I also think about how circumstances of birth, identity and geography are even now holding our fellow Americans, people like Lynn, back from exercising their constitutional rights. We can do better, and we must.
Shenna Bellows is Maine’s 50th Secretary of State and first female Secretary of State. She is the former Executive Director of the ACLU of Maine and the Human Rights Center of Maine.