AUGUSTA, Maine — Another push to require Maine voters to provide photo identification at the polls launched Wednesday in the Legislature, adding a new layer of deja vu to years of similar attempts.

Republican Rep. Brad Farrin’s bill, LD 121, would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls unless a municipal clerk could vouch for the person’s identity in person and requires the secretary of state’s office to provide nondriver identification cards to anyone who wants one at no charge.

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee heard hours of testimony about the bill on Wednesday, setting the stage for another political showdown on a concept that divides Republicans and Democrats in Maine and nationally. While Republicans frame the issue as a way to guard the voting process against as-yet-undetected fraud and mistakes, Democrats argue that it is an attempt to suppress voter turnout and swing close elections.

“I am sure you will hear from opponents of this bill today, and they will use fear tactics to make their case,” said Farrin during testimony. “They will talk about voter suppression, confusion at the polls, burden on poll workers and the expense to implement the process, just to name a few. I don’t believe any of these arguments should impede us from moving this legislation forward.”

The bill is unlikely to go far in the Legislature with Democrats in majority control of the House, although there are some differences this year compared to past attempts.

Why try again?

Donald Trump and others have thrust the issue back into the spotlight. During his campaign and in the first weeks of his presidency, Trump repeatedly claimed that millions of fraudulent ballots were cast in last November’s election. But he has provided no proof or context. That has prompted a whirlwind of similar claims by others, including Republican Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

In what are usually routine post-election letters to lawmakers summoning them to Augusta to be sworn in, LePage wrote that he sent the letters “despite the fact that I maintain strong concerns regarding the integrity of Maine’s ballot and accuracy of Maine’s election results. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the tabulation certified by the Secretary of State.”

The number of states with voter ID laws is growing. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 32 states require some level of identification to vote, ranging from requests or suggestions that voters provide a non-photo ID to strict photo ID requirements. Additionally, West Virginia will begin to require voter ID in 2018 and North Carolina’s law is pending a court challenge. Some voter ID laws, especially those proposed in southern states, were seen as attempts to suppress black and other minority voters.

That notion was shut down energetically by Republican Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon, who co-chairs the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

“This is one of those charged issues that we deal with in the Legislature,” said Mason after someone mentioned voter ID’s perceived racial origins. “We will debate this civilly and respectfully. If you have charges of racism, you will be asked to leave.”

South Carolina was the first state to require identification at the polls in 1950. By 2000, 14 states required some kind of identification document and the pace of states joining in accelerated after that.

The bill under consideration in Maine already has a sort of compromise built in. Farrin’s bill has a provision that would allow voters to cast a provisional ballot if they show up at the polls without a photo identification. If the voter can prove his or her identification within five business days, the ballot would be counted.

However, unless the bill is amended, that provision could complicate the reporting of election results by municipalities to the state, which current law says that has to happen within three days.

Forces of opposition

Maine legislatures have considered this repeatedly to no avail. According to data provided by the Legislative Law and Reference Library, voter ID bills have been attempted at least nine times in Maine since 1995, including two years ago in the 127th Legislature. The votes were mostly party line, with only two House Republicans and two Senate Republicans voting against the bill

In 2012, an attempt to require voter ID failed, but then-Secretary of State Charles E. Summers, a Republican who claimed a number of non-citizens had voted in Maine, commissioned a study to examine issues related to voter fraud and poll access. That study culminated in a 2013 report that found virtually no evidence of voter fraud in Maine.

The commission voted 4-1 against recommending the implementation of a voter ID law in Maine. However, Farrin’s bill incorporates many of the commission’s suggestions should the Legislature pursue a law, including the provision about the state providing free non-driver identification cards. The cost of that was estimated to be up to $6.3 million at the time.

Maine has never required photo IDs at the polls. The Legislative Law and Reference library said that before the 1970s, there was an educational/English literacy test required in order to be able to vote, but that was eliminated in 1971.

The Democrat-controlled secretary of state’s office opposes the concept. Julie Flynn, a deputy secretary of state who oversees Maine’s elections, said in 22 years working for the state, she has never seen an instance of voter impersonation at the polls. She said that in the past 10 years, there have been four prosecuted cases of “dual voting,” where one person voted twice in the same election. She said implementing voter ID would be cumbersome and expensive.

“Implementing the voter ID requirement would create significant administrative tasks and costs for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the elections division of the secretary of state, as well as for the election officials of the approximately 500 municipalities that conduct state and local elections,” Flynn said in testimony to lawmakers on Wednesday.

Additionally, Flynn argued that identification and proof of residency are both already required for first time voter registrants in Maine.

In addition to Flynn, the vast majority of people who testified on Wednesday spoke against the bill, including Attorney General Janet Mills. the ACLU of Maine, EqualityMaine, the Maine People’s Alliance, NAACP-Maine and the League of Woman Voters of Maine.

While it’s likely that the debate around voter ID will intensify as long as Trump and LePage continue to raise the issue, it’s unlikely to be implemented in Maine as long as Democrats control either chamber of the Legislature or the governor’s office.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.