Politics & Other Mistakes: Absentee reform doesn’t make the heart grow fonder

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Maine is full of creative ideas for fixing state government – almost all of them bad.

Term limits got rid of experienced legislators and replaced them with neophytes, many of whom turned out to be clunkheads.

Public campaign financing didn’t get dark money out of politics and failed to increase the quality or diversity of people in office. But it costs taxpayers a bundle.

Ranked-choice voting was supposed to reduce negative advertising and guarantee the winner got a majority of the votes. It does neither.

These failures haven’t discouraged reformers, who have the same zeal for their causes as white guys in MAGA hats carrying Confederate flags, zip ties, and stun guns have for theirs. The major difference between these two groups is the former may be more of a threat to democracy than the latter.

For evidence, look no further than the latest attempt to mess with Maine’s absentee-voting system. Democratic House Speaker Ryan Fecteau and newly chosen Secretary of State Shenna Bellows are pushing legislation to fix what has been working just fine. Can’t have that.

Under the state’s current setup, which was tweaked last year to deal with the pandemic, obtaining an absentee ballot is simple. All a registered voter has to do is call the municipal clerk and ask for one. Or said voter can go to the secretary of state’s website and make a similar request. About a month before the election, the ballot arrives in the mail. It can be filled out and returned by mail or hand-delivered to the local polling place. The only requirements are that the envelope is signed by the voter and the ballot arrives before the polls close on Election Day.

Uncomplicated – and safe. There’s almost no way to tamper with this system. So naturally, Fecteau and Bellows want to change things to make them more vulnerable to fraud.

Under the bill being considered by the Legislature, you wouldn’t have to go to all the trouble of requesting an absentee ballot every election. Instead, you’d sign up once, and your ballot would be regularly mailed to you like a subscription to a magazine you never read, but foolishly paid for in perpetuity with a credit card.

Unlike the existing absentee system, this reform isn’t simple. It requires the creation of a statewide absentee voter list. It requires somebody to update that list every time a voter moves or dies or opts for voting in person for a change. It also states that municipalities have to decide whether they want to be part of this scheme, which means that if you move from a town that automatically sends out ballots to one that doesn’t, you may discover on the day after the election that you missed out on the action.

Another drawback: If a voter dies within a month before any election, there’s a chance that absentee ballot will go astray. This change means there’ll be more errant ballots to be filled out by anyone with a suitable lack of morals.

There’s little doubt where Bellows is heading with this measure: universal vote by mail. During a public hearing on the bill, she invited Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman to testify about how her state mails ballots automatically to every registered voter. Wyman proudly pointed out that Washington is one of 10 states that handles elections in this fashion, neglecting to mention that 40 others think it’s a bad idea to have ballots floating around like supermarket flyers.

Voter fraud is rare in Maine. There was one confirmed case in 2020 of an absentee ballot being filled out by a person other than the intended voter. In the past decade, there have been only a couple of other instances, none of them successful. The state’s absentee-ballot system doesn’t have the sexy appeal so admired by progressives and others with an addiction to tinkering where it’s not needed. But our clunky system does provide maximum assurance that the election results are accurate.

That almost makes up for the winners being clunkheads.

I’m beyond reform, but you can email me anyway at [email protected].