Legislators weigh how much politicking to allow at polls
Mar. 21—At Maine polling places on Election Day, it's not unusual to see candidates standing outside greeting voters without asking them for their support.
There's a reason for that: State law says candidates can be there but cannot mention the name of the office they seek or request a person's vote.
For state Sen. Jim Libby, a Standish Republican, the rule amounts to "a gag-order and is, in my estimation, a violation of a candidate's constitutional right to free speech."
Libby is pushing a bill co-sponsored by state Sen. Eric Brakey, an Auburn Republican, to drop the restriction. It would also allow candidates to tell voters what office they're running for.
But others say the rules about conduct at the polls should be even tougher.
A bill sponsored by state Sen. Peggy Rotundo, a Lewiston Democrat, would add new restrictions on campaign buttons at the polls.
Secretary of State Shenna Bellows told a legislative panel that "any scintilla of electioneering has no place anywhere near a polling place."
"Voters should feel comfortable walking into and out of their polling place without feeling obligated to speak to candidates trying to convince them of their qualifications or pressured to have to change their vote based on this interaction."
Will Hayward, advocacy program coordinator for the League of Women Voters of Maine, said "one of the most common complaints" his organization hears is that voters on Election Day feel "distinctly uncomfortable being accosted by candidates on their way into the polling place."
"It can feel like running a gauntlet," he said, and "can feel intimidating to voters."
Libby told the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs that stifling candidates from responding to questions "cannot be tolerated in a free society."
"It is a black eye to our state and an awkward embarrassment at the polls that each of us are asked to endure," he said.
The Maine Municipal Association disagreed.
Speaking for the association, Rebecca Lambert told the committee that laws were passed to protect voters from being harassed or intimidated at the polls because they once were.
"Until the early 1900s, the polls looked very different than they do today where lines of constituents are quietly lined up waiting for their turn to cast their vote in a curtain-lined booth," she said.
"Early elections were contentious with voters on either side of the ballot often turning to violence to gain votes," Lambert said. "In factory towns, managers would often stand at the door to be sure those in attendance voted 'the right way.'"
Rotundo told lawmakers her bill would change a rule that lets voters wear a campaign button as long as it is less than 3 inches wide.
Her proposal would change the law to allow a voter to wear clothing, a button or a hat with a candidates' name or advertisement "if the message does not expressly advocate for the passage or defeat of a question or candidate on the ballot for the election that day."
"In other words, a voter — not a candidate — could wear a T-shirt that says 'Peggy Rotundo' but could not wear a T-shirt that says 'Elect Peggy Rotundo,'" she said.
"Conversely someone could not wear a shirt that says 'Defeat Peggy Rotundo, vote for her opponent," Rotundo said.
The bill, she said, would allow someone to stand at the polls and tell voters, "I am a friend of Peggy Rotundo, but not say 'I am a friend of Peggy Rotundo, be sure to vote for her today.'"
The Maine Town and City Clerks' Association took no position on Rotundo's proposal.
"Although our members appreciate the spirit of this bill as it was intended to help election officials, concerns were raised" that it could lead to confrontations between voters with opposing political messages or containing profanity, it said.
Bellows said her department "stands firm in the belief that when it comes to conduct at the voting place, candidates should be restricted in what they can say to voters entering and exiting the polls."
"While we certainly understand and support a candidate's right to campaign prior to the election in order to garner votes, this campaign activity should not extend into the voting place," she said.
"By the time a voter enters the voting place, that voter has already decided for whom they wish to vote," Bellows said. "Voters should be able to enter and exit the voting place without being harassed by candidates trying to gather last minute votes."
The committee plans to discuss both bills in a 2 p.m. work session Wednesday.