Last night marked the first time that voters themselves could weigh in on the GOP’s war on voting. The results were mixed, as Maine voted to reinstate election-day voter registration, while Mississippi voted to mandate government-issued IDs in order to cast a ballot.
First, Maine. By an overwhelming twenty-point margin, Mainers overruled the GOP governor and legislature and voted to restore election-day registration, which had been on the books since 1973 before Republicans scrapped it this year. The Protect Maine Votes coalition gathered 70,000 signatures in less than a month, according to the Bangor Daily News, in order to place the issue on the ballot. Sixty thousand Mainers registered on election day in 2008, and the convenience of same-day registration helped explain why Maine consistently had one of the highest voter turnouts in the nation.
As they always do, Republicans pointed to voter fraud as the reason for restricting access to the ballot. But a two-month investigation by Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers following the 2010 election didn’t find a single instance of voter fraud. When that argument didn’t stick, opponents of same day registration bizarrely argued that voters should oppose reinstating the reform because gay rights groups supported it. That argument backfired as well, turning what was expected to be a close vote into a blowout. “The Republicans once again overplayed their hand,” Maine Representative Chellie Pingree, the former president of Common Cause, told Rachel Maddow last night.
Things turned out differently for voting rights advocates in Mississippi, which became the seventh GOP-controlled state to adopt voter ID legislation this year, and the first to do so through a ballot initiative. The initiative passed by twenty-four points. Eleven percent of eligible voters do not possess government-issued photo IDs, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which equals 234,000 voters in Mississippi. “There is reason to believe that Mississippi will have a higher than average rate of people with no ID, since it is the poorest state in the nation, since it has among the highest rates of people with disabilities and because it has a high African-American population,” Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center, told me. “Each of these characteristics correlates with lower rates of ID possession.”
The NAACP and ACLU are considering challenging the new law, which must also receive approval from the Justice Department as specified by the Voting Rights Act before going into effect. “This Department of Justice will be aggressive at looking at those jurisdictions that have attempted for whatever reason to restrict the ability of people to get to the polls,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday.