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Maine’s high court denies effort to keep counting absentee ballots after Election Day

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The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled late last week that absentee ballots must be returned to municipal clerks by Election Day to be counted, rejecting an appeal that sought to make significant changes to Maine’s election laws just days before Mainers are set to cast their votes.

The lawsuit wanted to allow election officials to continue counting absentee ballots if the ballots were postmarked by Election Day but not received by municipalities before the polls closed. In a 4-1 decision, Maine’s high court denied the Alliance for Retired American’s appeal and said Maine’s election laws are not too burdensome for voters to participate during the coronavirus pandemic, even with thousands of more Mainers expected to vote by mail. Associate Justice Joseph Jabar was the court’s lone dissenter.

In its decision, the majority wrote:

“Applying those factors here, it is beyond dispute that a citizen’s right to vote is fundamental. As we have explained, however, the risk that an absentee voter will be erroneously deprived of that right has been substantially reduced through the procedures instituted by the Secretary, even if the statutory deadline for returning such ballots is adhered to. Finally, as we have discussed, the State’s interest in following statutory directives governing the election is substantial. In sum, we conclude that absentee voters will be afforded ‘fundamental fairness’ in the November 2020 election.”

The Alliance’s first legal effort failed in Superior Court in late September. Judge William Stokes denied the group’s lawsuit, stating the changes to election law the group sought would result in “severe disruption” of the Nov. 3 election.

“For this court to unilaterally discard the statutory deadline and impose a deadline of its own choosing, would amount to a judicial re-writing of the election laws,” Judge Stokes wrote on Sept. 30, adding that “the burdens on the right to vote imposed by the challenged provisions of Maine’s law are slight or moderate, and the State’s interest outweigh any burdens” on that right.

According to the Alliance for Retired Mainers, their lawsuit in Maine sought to:

  1. Allow Maine residents to register to vote online;
  2. Eliminate the requirement that a voter registration application be accompanied by a photo identification document;
  3. Ensure that ballots postmarked by Election Day, but not yet received by a Supervisor of Elections, are counted;
  4. Permit any third party the voter chooses to submit their sealed ballots in person on their behalf;
  5. Provide pre-paid postage for all mail ballots; and
  6. Notify voters and provide an opportunity to cure their ballots if they are rejected due to a technical defect or signature mismatch.

Unlike what will occur in other states due to similar lawsuits, Maine will not be counting late absentee ballots submitted after Election Day. Ultimately, the high court ruled that these changes were unnecessary to protect individuals’ right to vote in the November election, and that the state had already taken reasonable steps to protect that right while adhering to various election deadlines prescribed by law.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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