GAY-RIGHTS BACKERS SEEK ABSENTEE VOTE
By Steven G. Vegh
©Copyright 1998 Guy Gannett Communications
Maine Won't Discriminate has sent applications for absentee ballots to more than 5,000 voters as part of its effort to uphold Maine's gay-rights law in a referendum Feb. 10.
Maine Won't Discriminate, a coalition of gay-rights advocates, also called 100,000 voters, asking them to vote to support the new law to prohibit discrimination against gay people.
The calls included offers of help for anyone who wanted to vote by absentee ballot. A total of 5,353 voters accepted the offer, said Joe Cooper, a spokesman for Maine Won't Discriminate.
Each one was sent an application for an absentee ballot and an envelope addressed to the voter registrar in their community.
Registrars receive applications and send absentee ballots to voters. Voters mark the ballots and return them to the registrars by Election Day.
Yes For Equal Rights, the coalition that hopes to overturn the gay-rights law, has made no statewide effort to capture absentee votes, said Michael S. Heath of the Christian Civic League of Maine.
The Christian Civic League and the Christian Coalition of Maine are partners in the coalition.
Heath said absentee voters may be a focus of gay-rights opponents at the local level, but he did not know of any such efforts.
''The key part of our strategy has been identifying friendly voters and urging them to vote on Feb. 10,'' Heath said.
The ballot question will ask voters if they want to reject the law that would make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation in credit, employment, housing and public accommodations.
The Legislature passed the law last spring. The Christian Coalition and the Christian Civic League quickly rallied against the law, with a petition drive that gathered more than 58,000 signatures to force next week's vote.
Those signatures represent the core of support for the ''vote yes'' campaign in an election where only about 100,000 people are expected to vote.
A large voter turnout is a critical ''vote no'' strategy, because polls show that a strong majority of Mainers support the gay-rights law.
While absentee ballots could decide a close election, as next week's election is expected to be, voter registrars in some of Maine's biggest cities said requests for absentee ballots have not been heavy.
Portland has received more than 200 requests - compared with 2,000 during the 1996 presidential election campaign.
''At this point, 200 really isn't that significant,'' said Assistant City Clerk Laurie Savona.
Requests for absentee ballots probably will increase in the last week of the campaign.
In recent days, Portland and Lewiston have seen requests start to accelerate, apparently because of Maine Won't Discriminate's telephone campaign.
Savona and Shannon Voigt, Lewiston's deputy city clerk, said many of the requests have arrived in the same kind of envelope with the same style of address label.
''Somebody out there is actually sending absentee ballot applications to residents,'' Voigt said.
But even with 15 to 20 ballot requests coming in daily, Voigt said the volume is much slower than for other elections. Lewiston has received about 170 requests so far; a typical November election brings about 500.
City clerks and registrars in Bangor, Augusta, Biddeford, Rockland and Caribou all described demand for absentee ballots as light.
All agreed that ballot requests are down because there are no public offices at stake, because voters don't expect elections to be held in February, and because many voters are unaware of the referendum or confused about its purpose.
''People start looking for elections in June and November. When you throw one in in February, it kind of catches you off-guard,'' said Rockland City Clerk Stuart Sylvester.
Biddeford's Assistant City Clerk Carmen Lemieux and Augusta's Deputy Registrar MaryAnne McCullough said that many voters from their cities move south for the winter. Those voters likely know nothing about the referendum, the two officials said.
The officials also said they've seen no increase in voter registrations. Registering new voters for an election is a common tactic used by candidates, political parties and campaigns.
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