Maine Voting by the Numbers
Mainers do love to vote. Every election cycle Maine ranks in the top five states nationally for voter turnout. But someone with a head for figures might at first wonder if we overdo it.
A report from the Secretary of State’s office in December showed that Maine has 994,155 registered voters — 326,256 Democrats, 267,504 Republicans, 31,676 Green Independents, and 368,719 independents. Meanwhile, extrapolating from the U.S. Census estimate that Maine had 1,316,456 residents in 2008 reveals that there are barely 1,000,000 people in the state who are of voting age — likely fewer, since Census estimates for Maine often run to the high side. Meanwhile, a Pew Foundation study in 2006 showed that only 79 percent of voting-age Mainers were registered. (That number, incidentally, was well above the national average of 76 percent.) By that measure, we should have only about 790,000 registered voters.
So why does Maine’s central voter registration list show 24,000 more names than it should? One problem, according to Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, is that people don’t stand still. “Orono, for example, has a 20 percent annual turnover,” he notes, due to the influence of the University of Maine. “People move, and if they move often enough they might have a registration in two or three towns.”
Dunlap allows that college students from out of state who register to vote are a factor, but not a large one. The state’s largest university campus, the University of Maine, has about 1,700 out-of-state students, for example, and not all of them even register to vote in Maine.
Maine has a central voter registration list created three years ago through a federally funded mandate, the Help America Vote Act. “Towns don’t have individual voter registration lists anymore,” Dunlap explains. “Before central voter registration, there were 503 different lists.” The central list keeps duplicate registrations to a minimum, since voters who were previously registered in one town are supposed to fill out change of address cards when they register in another town. Each voter has a unique registration number that follows him or her to a new residence.
Another problem is that the new central list was built based on the old individual town voter lists, which were notoriously inaccurate despite periodic state government attempts to encourage town clerks to purge invalid names from them. Nonetheless, Dunlap says, “I would say the current list is very accurate. If you’d asked me several years ago, I’d still be laughing.”
Dunlap anticipates that the list will get more accurate as time goes on and more culling is done. It will never be complete. “It’s a dynamic system, so we’ll never be done,” he says. And the heart of the issue is that everyone must be given the chance to cast a ballot. “You have to jump through more hoops to prove residency to get a fishing license in Maine than to vote,” Dunlap points out, “but that’s because voting is a constitutional right, and fishing isn’t.”