BANGOR, Maine — If the city is planning to consolidate its polling places from four down to one for special elections, it might as well do so for all elections.
That was the consensus of the Bangor Polling Realignment Committee, which met last week to discuss the idea and agreed to move forward with that recommendation to the City Council.
The council is expected to take up the matter at a meeting in February.
City Clerk Patti Dubois first brought the consolidation proposal to city councilors in December, but her suggestion was only for special elections and primary elections, which typically have lower turnouts. Some councilors liked the idea so much, they wondered why not consolidate for all elections?
Dubois took that suggestion to the polling realignment committee, which is made up of city warden clerks, polling volunteers and others, for discussion.
After about two hours of hashing out the pros and cons, the committee agreed that having just one polling place — the Bangor Civic Center — would streamline efficiency, reduce confusion and marginally reduce costs.
“It’s a pretty drastic change we’re proposing,” Dubois said. “But with a special election coming up in June and the next presidential election a ways off, this will allow us to ease into the idea.”
About four years ago the city reduced its number of polling places from eight to four. At that time, many residents expressed concerns that voters would be confused about where to cast ballots and that lines would be longer. Those concerns didn’t last long.
The polling realignment committee fully expects a new wave of concerns to pop up this time around, particularly from older voters who hold dear the traditions of voting.
“They’re going to scream the loudest,” committee member Nick Bearce said. “But, I think we should just do it and get it over with.”
“The last time, we heard from people who were fired up against [consolidation], but the rest were pretty complacent,” she said.
Besides, the clerk said, things have changed considerably even since 2004. According to a summary of voter turnout in the city of Bangor since the 2000 presidential election, the number of Election Day voters has gone down steadily. At the same time, the number of absentee ballots continues to rise at a healthy rate.
During the 2008 presidential election, nearly as many Bangor voters cast absentee ballots as voted in person on Nov. 4.
“And, the actual numbers are not as important as the trend,” Dubois said.
Another factor could come into play as well. State legislators are expected to consider a measure during the next session that would allow Maine municipalities to conduct early voting. Early voting allows residents to actually cast ballots, which are then processed immediately. Absentee ballots, even if they are cast in person, cannot be processed until Election Day, or sometimes the day before.
Since in-person absentee voting already takes place solely at the Bangor Civic Center, voters will never be confused about where to go, no matter how they choose to vote. Dubois said the civic center, which is the biggest voting venue in the city and has the most parking, can easily handle all of Bangor’s voters, even during presidential elections.
One concern that was discussed at length dealt with candidates and petitioners who set up shop at polling places on Election Day. City Councilor Rick Bronson, the only councilor who attended the polling realignment committee meeting, said he worried that voters are not going to be wild about “running the gantlet” of candidates and petitioners.
Dubois agreed that is a common concern of voters, but she said state law allows both candidates and petitioners to be there.