Voting-rights advocates stage rally, motorcade in Portland

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May 9—Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows joined voting rights advocates Saturday in Portland's Payson Park to call for passage of three bills before Congress that would expand or protect access to the ballot box across the United States.

Bellows, along with advocates from the League of Women Voters of Maine, Common Cause Maine and Mainers for Accountable Leadership, recruited residents to call their senators and spread awareness of pending voting rights legislation in a "votercade" around Portland. The demonstration was meant to mobilize support for H.R. 1, known as the For the People Act; S. 4263, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act; and another bill that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st state.

"Make no mistake: our democracy is at a crossroads," Bellows said at the event, accusing Republicans of orchestrating a concerted policy of voter suppression across the country, even as voting rights advocates work to open the doors wider.

"We are living in very strange and troubling times when it comes to voting rights," said Anna Keller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine, citing hundreds of restrictive voting bills passed or considered across the country.

But this is also a time where those hoping to extend voting access to people of all creeds, colors and backgrounds have a chance to make their vision a reality, Keller said — including through the trio of bills that were the focus of Saturday's event.

"Those dreams can start to come true," they said.

The John Lewis Act, inspired by the late congressman and civil-rights legend from Georgia, would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that allowed for federal oversight of election laws in states that engaged in voter suppression during the Jim Crow era. Portions of the law were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, and since then, many of the states formerly under federal watch — including Georgia — have passed legislation limiting access to the polls.

Voting advocates dubbed Saturday the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Action Day, with similar votercades planned around the nation. Pious Ali, a Portland city councilor who emigrated 20 years ago from Ghana, said that by supporting H.R. 1 he hoped to honor Lewis' legacy and ensure that those seeking to participate in civics had the same opportunities that he, Ali, had.

"As an immigrant from Ghana I want to pay homage to all who fought for the opportunity for me to be here," he said at the rally. "But today, that freedom is under siege, and so today it is our turn."

The For the People Act, passed by the House and now before the Senate, contains a slew of provisions intended to make it easier to vote across the country. The bill would require all states to offer same-day voter registration, early voting for two weeks before elections and automatic registration for those eligible to vote for federal office. It would also create a public financing system for election campaigns and discourage partisan gerrymandering through independent districting commissions.

And H.R. 51, passed by the House last month, would make the District of Columbia a state, giving its 700,000 residents two senators and a voting representative in Congress.

"It shouldn't be that if you live in Maine you have the right to vote, but if you live in the District of Columbia you don't," Bellows said.

Maine is leading by example in expanding and protecting voter access, Bellows said, citing the state's efforts to implement automatic registration, online registration, permanent absentee ballot boxes and online tracking services for absentee ballots. But if those rights are being eroded in other states, Mainers should care, too, she said.

Bellows said she, other secretaries of state, and the U.S. Department of Justice this past week held a conference call to discuss a Republican-led audit of the 2020 election in Arizona's Maricopa County that has faced criticism for its lack of transparency and potential breaches to the security of ballots and election machines.

State legislators hired a Florida-based firm called Cyber Ninjas, which has refused to allow traditional media to observe its audit and, based on a conspiracy theory that ballots were smuggled in from Asia, examined them for bamboo.

"This is an infection. It's happening around the country," Bellows said, adding, "We might giggle about the idea of examining ballots for bamboo, ... but it is a serious thing."

Organizers at Saturday's event encouraged those present to contact Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and urge them to support the legislation.

"It's all going to come down to the Senate," Keller said. "We are calling on Sen. King and Sen. Collins to support the For the People Act, no matter what it takes."

King co-sponsored an earlier version of the For the People Act, in 2019, and he co-sponsored the John Lewis Act with 46 other senators. He has not yet taken a position on D.C. statehood.

Collins does not appear to have taken a public stance on either of the voting rights bills. She recently suggested that D.C. become part of Maryland, rather than its own state.

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