Maine’s new secretary of state plans to address voting access, privacy, driving-related fines

Photo: Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, official photo

Shenna Bellows had a busy three weeks.

On Nov. 12, Bellows announced her campaign for Maine secretary of state — a position that is voted on by members of the legislature. Last week, she won that election. 

Bellows said her approach to the campaign was simple. Just as she has done when successfully running for state Senate, she talked with every voter. 

“After I made the decision to run, I began calling literally every single one of my former colleagues to have a real honest conversation with them about their hopes and vision and experience with the Office of the Secretary of State,” said Bellows, who has served in the state Senate as a Democrat representing District 14 since 2016. In 2014, she unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Senator Susan Collins for her seat.

Bellows followed up on those conversations with handwritten cards to each legislator along with a copy of her resume, a letter outlining her qualifications for the job and letters of support from former employees at the ACLU of Maine and LearningWorks — two organizations where she has held leadership positions. 

Bellows’ full-throttle campaign paid off, as she will become the first woman in Maine to be secretary of state when she officially takes office in January, replacing the term-limited Matt Dunlap. 

Voter protection an essential part of the job

One of the biggest motivating factors in her decision to enter the race was protecting voter rights, Bellows said.

“Watching what’s happening around the country, it’s so clear that nothing is more important than the integrity of our elections and broad voter participation,” she said. “That’s why I decided to run.”

“What we’re seeing right now is very dangerous rhetoric at the highest levels and a failure of national leadership to stand up and say our hard-working elections officials all across the country are true patriots and they worked hard to deliver safe and fair and free elections during a pandemic, and they did so successfully,” Bellow continued.

She added that that she has learned from speaking with Holocaust survivors as the director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine how fragile democratic systems can be. 

When it comes to Maine, Bellows said the state has a robust election system, pointing out that Maine’s voter turnout in the last election was among the highest in the country. 

Still, Bellows said more can be done, adding that one of her first actions will be embarking on a listening tour to hear suggestions from state workers, clerks, advocates and the public on how Maine can strengthen its election processes. 

In addition, Bellows said implementing automatic voter registration — which the legislature passed in 2019 — is a top priority. Bellows added that having an online voter registration system has been an effective component of automatic voter registration in other states. Maine is one of just a handful of states where residents can’t register to vote online. 

“I think we should be thinking about how other states have utilized technology to improve voter participation and access, and online voter registration is certainly one of those really important tools,” Bellows said.  

Bellows is also supportive of additional reforms pushed by advocates in the run-up to the 2020 election, such as paid postage for ballots and universal mailing of ballots to registered voters. 

“Anything we can do to make it easier, not harder for people to vote is what we should be doing,” she said, noting that she worked on protecting and expanding voting rights when she was head of the ACLU of Maine. 

Other priorities as secretary of state

Bellows said another goal is to foster confidence in government through effective customer service at the Office of the Secretary of State, which also runs the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the State Archives in addition to being in charge of elections.

A Bureau of Motor Vehicles office in Bangor | Beacon photo

“If we want people to believe that the government can help change their lives for the better on big picture issues, they need to see that on the everyday issues like registering their vehicle or getting a license, the government is capable of assisting them,” Bellows said.

Bellows said she is also focused on protecting the privacy rights of the multitude of Mainers who have provided the office with personal information in order to register to vote, get an ID card or obtain a driver’s license. 

Bellows cited her work when she was with the ACLU of Maine to ensure there were alternative options for those who didn’t want a REAL ID — which requires applicants to provide additional information to the state — as an example of how seriously she takes privacy rights. 

“It’s never a question of if large databases are going to be hacked but when and to what consequence,” she explained. “So one of the chief responsibilities of the secretary of state is to safeguard the privacy and the security of that personal data.”  

Along with privacy, Bellows said another top priority is making sure that Maine’s motor vehicle laws don’t punish those living in poverty. 

During a public forum with the six Democratic secretary of state candidates in November, advocates noted that while the state has made progress by banning suspensions of licenses for failure to pay fines and fees on non-driving related offenses, many people have still had their license suspended for not paying driving-related fees and fines — a practice that disproportionately impacts people of color. 

Bellows said many legislators she spoke with while campaigning for secretary of state expressed a desire to reform Maine’s laws so they don’t hurt those with the least ability to pay. She said she would be excited to work with legislators on such reforms. 

Bellows added that her view on the issue is informed by her experience of having lived in poverty. 

“I shared with the legislature in my nominating speech [that] when I was a kid, our car broke down a lot,” she said. “I remember being on the side of the road overnight in a broken down old Chevy Blazer when I was a kid. And so I have empathy. I know what it’s like for people.”

The importance of having a driver’s license in a rural state like Maine was once again made apparent, Bellows said, when a constituent who called her over the summer about a problem with his unemployment benefits also told her that his license was about to be suspended because he couldn’t afford insurance payments. 

“That is the type of structural problem that can take people from a short-term disaster like losing your job in a pandemic to long-term tragedy,” Bellows said. “Because if you lose your right to drive, how can you access a job in the future?”

“And so it’s a compounding problem,” she continued. “And we need to think about structural policy changes to ensure we’re doing everything we can to support Mainers during this crisis.”

Photo: Former state Sen. Shenna Bellows, official photo

About Evan Popp

Avatar photoEvan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan(at)

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