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Maine legislature expands ballot box access

Maine's state legislature has approved several measures seeking to expand voting access in the state, including one allowing independent voters to participate in Democratic and Republican primaries. 

The proposal for a semi-open primary system, which has received bipartisan support from state lawmakers, comes as registered Democrats or Republicans have traditionally had to change their party affiliation to participate in the other party's primary election. Those registered as an independent, unaffiliated or third party were also barred from participating in either the Democratic or Republican primary.

Independents make up roughly 32 percent of Maine's voting population, according to local ABC affiliate WMTW

State Sen. Chloe Maxim (D) told the local news outlet, "In Maine, 65 to 70 percent of our legislative races are decided in the primary, so we're excluding a third of our voters from the biggest decisions of who is going to be up here serving in our state legislature." 

Republican state Sen. Matt Pouliot, who also supported the bill, said there are "a lot of people that are in the electorate that feel disenfranchised, because they're not able to be a part of democracy until Election Day in November." 

Several states across the country have partially open primary systems, while states like Florida, Nevada and New York require a voter to be registered with a particular political party to participate in that party's primary elections. 

More than a dozen states have open primaries, in which voters do not have to register with a specific political party to cast their ballot in a primary contest. 

Maine lawmakers also approved a slew of other voting measures this week, including one that would develop an online tracking system for absentee ballots and allow voters to correct mistakes that would otherwise disqualify their ballot. 

The Maine Senate on Thursday also followed the state House's vote a day earlier in favor of a bill to allow online voter registration in the state. 

While Maine's current law allows people to request an application online, completed forms must be returned either by mail or in person. 

State Rep. Teresa Pierce (D), the bill's sponsor, told The Associated Press on Thursday, "To strengthen our democracy, we need to look at ways to improve voting access, not limit it." 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 40 other states and Washington, D.C., currently allow online voter registration. 

The Maine measures come as Democrats and voting rights activists have condemned new laws and proposed changes in Republican-led states like Georgia, Florida and Texas, including policies that would limit absentee voting and hours of polling places.

Critics of these measures say they will make it disproportionately harder for low-income groups and voters of color to cast their ballots, while Republicans have defended the proposals as ways to uphold the integrity of the U.S. electoral system. 

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