Clockwise from left: Matt Moonen, Shenna Bellows, Craig Hickman, Erik Jorgensen, Tom Bull and Justin Chenette. Credit: BDN composite

AUGUSTA, Maine — Each of the six Democrats running to be Maine’s next secretary of state wants to set up an online voting registration system, but they fall into camps on whether to build upon the office’s recent work or institute more dramatic changes.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, of Manchester, former Rep. Tom Bull of Freeport and four outgoing lawmakers — Sen. Justin Chenette of Saco, House Majority Leader Matt Moonen of Portland and Reps. Craig Hickman of Winthrop and Erik Jorgensen of Portland — have been courting lawmakers ahead of the Dec. 2 vote to replace term-limited Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.

The secretary of state and other constitutional officers are picked by a joint caucus of both legislative chambers. Since Democrats hold 103 of the Legislature’s 186 seats, their nominee is all but certain to win the position next month. It is turning into perhaps the most interesting and nuanced nominating race of 2020 in Maine politics, even though voters will not weigh in.

The newcomer’s tenure will come on the heels of an tumultuous election marked by record shares of absentee voting due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many of those changes may continue in Maine, which has relatively liberal voting laws with an automatic voter registration system en route to full implementation by 2022. President Donald Trump and his supporters have pushed false claims of mass voter fraud across the country.

Each of the Democrats running for the position said they supported exploring an online voter registration system. Maine is among just 10 states not offering that now after lawsuit seeking to force that and other changes failed in October. The candidates differed sharply on how to increase public trust in the secretary of state position — which oversees voting, motor vehicle licensing, identification and other key functions — and what their main focuses would be.

Hickman, who would be the first Black constitutional officer in the state of Maine if elected, said he would be supportive of a constitutional amendment to implement ranked-choice voting in all state elections. He also said he would be in favor of expanding early voting infrastructure to allow votes to be tallied as they are submitted. He said he may not put forward these measures himself, but wait to see how lawmakers would look to address the issue.

“That doesn’t mean the secretary of state can’t take the bully pulpit and lead and advocate for those issues,” he said.

Bull, a former Freeport lawmaker who works for Dunlap’s office, said he would pursue codifying elements of voting brought on by the pandemic, such as drop boxes. He also said he would be in favor of having Maine join five other states that maintain a list of voters who can sign up to automatically get absentee ballots each election.

Chenette said he would take a more campaign finance-focused role, even though an independent state agency, the Maine Ethics Commission, oversees that part of state law. He said he would advocate directly for changes including banning corporate and lobbying firm contributions to legislative races and preventing foreign governments from influencing elections — a nod to Hydro-Quebec’s spending to blunt referendum bids aimed at Central Maine Power’s controversial powerline project.

Moonen said he would advocate for decriminalizing some offenses that often result in the loss of driver’s licenses, which he said could create job issues or further get Mainers into trouble if taken away. He also said he would look to implement some of the changes pushed for by advocates, like paying for postage of absentee ballots.

Bellows, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2014 and would be the first woman to serve as secretary of state, said her primary goal would be to strengthen voter identification privacy while making the system more user-friendly and modern. She said she would pursue an election auditing process to build trust and encourage transparency.

Jorgensen, who sat on the Legislature’s budget committee for eight years, said protecting the agency’s budget from an impending revenue shortfall would be his top priority. He said he would like to improve “mechanical” elements of the system.

“I’m not looking to go in there and make massive changes, but listen to where things need to be fixed and improved, and defend [the system] if need be,” he said.