The Maine Superior Court dealt a blow to organizations and voters who are looking to relax state laws dealing with absentee voting, including those involving third parties turning in ballots and the state's Election Day deadline for receiving them.
Justice William R. Stokes denied the plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction that would have blocked state officials from enforcing the current laws, claiming that state interests -- including the desire to prevent voter fraud -- outweigh any burdens that may be imposed on voters. One such law forbids third parties from being compensated for collecting and turning in ballots, a practice often referred to as ballot harvesting.
“[T]he slight burden on the right to vote imposed by the prohibition on paid deliverers of absentee ballots is clearly outweighed by the State’s compelling interest in forbidding the payment of compensation to those handling another person’s ballot,” Stokes wrote in the court’s ruling. “Such a prohibition serves the State’s important interest in deterring and preventing election fraud.”
The lawsuit also contests a law imposing strict requirements in cases where an absentee ballot is submitted by a third party who is not an immediate family member. In such cases, the state requires the voter to sign their ballot before a municipal clerk, a clerk of courts, a notary public or two other witnesses.
The plaintiffs argued that these requirements are “burdensome” and “unnecessary,” but the court ruled that having a nonfamily third party deliver the ballot “is simply another option for an absentee voter to use in deciding how to return the ballot.” A voter also has the option to submit the ballot in person to the clerk or a secure lockbox, by mail or through an immediate family member, the court noted.
Once again, voter fraud was mentioned in explaining the court’s reasoning.
“Although there has been considerable discussion and debate about the prevalence (or lack thereof) of voter fraud, there can be no question as to the State’s compelling interest in reasonably regulating how a ballot is handled, and by whom, when the voter chooses not to appear for in-person voting,” the ruling said.
The court also said the plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed in their argument that officials should be required to notify absentee voters if their ballots are rejected as invalid and that a deadline to cure any error should be after Election Day. Ballots can be rejected if there are mismatched or missing signatures or a “defective” certificate from an aide or witness.
The court noted that days after the filing of the lawsuit, Maine’s secretary of state issued instructions to election officials stating that they “must make a good faith effort to notify the voter as quickly as possible … that the ballot may be rejected or challenged unless the defect is cured.” The instruction calls for clerks to attempt to reach voters “within one business day at a minimum” or “as quickly as possible” if the ballot is received on Election Day or less than 24 hours beforehand.
Stokes ruled that while the instructions do not carry the same weight as law, they are legally sufficient to meet due process requirements.
Finally, the court rejected the idea that ballots should be accepted after the current deadline of 8 p.m. on Election Day. The plaintiffs argued that as long as ballots are postmarked on or before Nov. 3 they should be counted for up to at least a week after Election Day.
The court agreed that the coronavirus pandemic has led to increased voting by mail, and that “COVID-19 and the issues with the Postal Service have complicated voting in the year 2020." Nevertheless, the court said it does not believe that the state’s deadline is the reason for “any increased burden” on voting.
“It is a deadline, and just like any deadline, there can be serious consequences if it is not met,” the court said.
Supporting its determination, the court noted that in places like Georgia and Wisconsin where deadlines have been extended, there was evidence that they had problems with other elections earlier in the year. Maine, however, had “little controversy” with its July 14 primary election.
The court went on to explain that moving the deadline would give voters an impression that government deadlines need not be taken seriously.
“A judicial declaration that the statutory deadline is not really a deadline at all, and can be altered and extended for a week or more, risks undermining voter confidence that the law means what it says and that the voting and the election are over,” the ruling said.
The Trump campaign, Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Maine all intervened as defendants in the case, which was initially brought in June against Maine's Democratic Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap and Attorney General Aaron Frey.