Lawmakers weigh bill to ban signature gathering at polls

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AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) A legislative panel on Wednesday considered a bill that would make signature-gathering at Maine polling places a crime.

The bill includes a provision to prohibit exit polling, signature gathering, electioneering and charitable activities within 50 feet of the entrance to polling places. Lawmakers heard testimony on the bill at a committee hearing on Wednesday.

Maine lawmakers since January have been contending with laws that voters approved at the polls to legalize recreational marijuana, overhaul Maine's election system, expand Medicaid and raise the minimum wage. Several lawmakers critical of the influence of out-of-state special interest groups have unsuccessfully tried to make it harder for citizens to get questions on the ballot.

Democratic Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says his department's bill, which includes a variety of unrelated provisions, is not meant to kill the citizen initiative process. He says the provision is meant to spur dialogue about aggressive conduct by signature-gatherers.

David Trahan, of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, told the Veterans and Legal Affairs committee on Wednesday that some type of buffer could restore order to polling places, Maine Public reported .

"Having petition circulators in the polls, particularly if it's not managed well, can be a real confusing day. It's intimidating for voters," he said.

But critics say polling places are an ideal place for groups to gather signatures to get initiatives on the ballot. Democratic Sen. Troy Jackson said he would fight to protect citizen initiatives.

Zach Heiden, the ACLU of Maine's legal director, said the proposal violates the First Amendment protection of political speech.

"You can't restrict core political speech just because it may inconvenience somebody. That's not a sufficient justification," he said.

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