Bill would audit Maine election results as means of promoting voter confidence

Scott Thistle, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·4 min read

Apr. 5—A bill that would see Maine join 34 other states in conducting post-election audits won support Monday before the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, even though there has been no evidence that Maine election results are inaccurate.

"At its heart, this bill is about promoting ongoing election integrity and public confidence in our elections," said Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, who testified in favor. "It's not about what we're not doing. Maine elections are well run. It's about what we can do in the future to prevent problems before they occur."

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, follows a 2020 election cycle in the U.S. that saw unprecedented and false claims of election malfeasance by former President Trump. The election also saw record voter turnout in Maine and saw record numbers of Mainers use the state's absentee voter system to cast their ballots, shattering all previous records for absentee voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grohoski said her bill would create a system of checks and balances to build on Maine's already strong election system, which is largely managed locally by town and city clerks, the state's frontline election officials.

"Public confidence in our elections is of the utmost importance and must be earned, not taken for granted," she said.

Grohoski said she has worked with local officials and has confidence Maine's system is secure and accurate, with important protections like paper ballots and a "robust chain of custody" in place.

But not all citizens are aware of how elections work or have the same confidence in Maine's system and a postelection audit would be a way not only to boost confidence but also to find flaws in the system to make it better, she said.

Although the cost of the program has not been determined, Grohoski said it would likely involve additional staff for Bellows' office.

No one testified against the measure, but Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, objected to a provision that establishes an initial pilot program before full implementation of an audit system.

"I love, love, love this bill," Corey said. "But I hate the idea of pilot program."

Corey said if a future Legislature decided it didn't want an election auditing system it could do away with the law.

However, others said a pilot program would allow the state to work out kinks in an auditing system by gradually implementing it in stages.

If an audit discovered any significant programs or irregularities, that would lead to a full hand recount of ballots, a step that could be costly and time consuming and not taken lightly, according to John Marion, of Common Cause Rhode Island. Marion said Rhode Island implemented its audit system in stages, testing it first on elections that were not as consequential as a statewide general election.

Others offering testimony in support included Debra McDonough, a volunteer with the League of Women Voters of Maine. McDonough echoed praise for Maine's existing system and the state's election officials.

"In supporting this bill, the League of Women Voters of Maine does not argue that elections in Maine have been compromised nor that the persons responsible for our elections are dishonest," McDonough said. "Instead, we argue that confidence in the outcome of our elections should not have to rest on trusting whomever happens to hold these positions."

Trump's false claims about the 2020 election results still resonate among voters and election officials, especially Republican office-holders who have proposed a flood of election reforms in legislatures across the country. Many of those proposals aim to tighten existing laws in ways that restrict ballot access and make voting more difficult for Blacks, immigrants and other voters who may be more likely to support Democrats.

In Georgia last week, the governor signed a sweeping new election law. While Republicans called it an effort to restore voter confidence in elections, others saw the measure as an effort to restrict Black voters and politicize the election system by putting it under control of partisan boards.

With a Democratic governor and a Legislature under Democratic control, Maine is not likely to see election law changes that reduce access to the ballot or making voting more difficult. Still, lawmakers will see plenty of election proposals in this legislative session.

The audit bill was one of numerous bills the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hear this week that deal with elections and voting law changes, including a measure that would allow voters to register or change their voter registration online. Maine is among a minority of 10 states that do not allow online voter registration.

On Wednesday the panel will take up several bills offered by Republican lawmakers, including at least two proposals that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls. Another bill before the committee would remove a voters' party affiliation from the return envelopes for absentee ballots.

Other election-related measures will be heard Thursday, including one that would make candidates for governor ineligible for public financing under the Maine Clean Elections Act.