BANGOR, Maine — The fallout was swift and decisive Monday over a city election official’s decision to deny a Bangor police officer access to a voting booth unless he turned over his weapon.
Bangor City Clerk Patti Dubois, who is in charge of staffing the city’s lone polling place, confirmed Monday that longtime election warden Wayne Mallar has been asked to stay home for the remainder of this election cycle.
Dubois also said she planned to contact the officer, James Dearing, later Monday to apologize and ensure that he has another opportunity to vote.
Dearing first tried to cast his vote late last Friday. The 18-year veteran police officer was patrolling near the Bangor Civic Center and stopped in to fill out an in-person absentee ballot. He walked into the polling place in full uniform with his firearm holstered and stood in a short line with other voters.
Mallar, the election warden in charge that day, approached Dearing and requested that he turn over the weapon to another officer stationed at the polling place or he wouldn’t be allowed to vote.
Dearing refused and explained later that he was trained never to turn over his firearm.
But Mallar stood his ground.
Rather than make a scene, the officer left the polling place quietly, although he later admitted the entire incident was embarrassing.
Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said Monday that his officer did the right thing, and he defended Dearing’s decision to vote while on duty.
“Frankly, he took the high road and left. He did what was appropriate … what I would have expected any police officer to do,” the chief said. “In speaking with the clerk’s office this morning, her position is that officers are certainly permitted at the polls, in uniform or out of uniform, armed or unarmed.”
After he got home Friday, Dearing created a post on his Facebook page about what had happened to him. The responses came quickly and were strongly in his favor.
Dearing decided to draft a letter to Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.
Dunlap said Monday that state law allows a warden broad latitude of authority over polling places. However, no state or federal law exists that prohibits police officers — or anyone else, for that matter — from bringing guns to a polling place.
“I don’t know what [the warden] was thinking,” he said. “There is no reason why a uniformed officer under any circumstances should be questioned. This could have been avoided by making a call to our office.”
As an election official, Mallar said his only responsibility is the welfare and safety of voters. He said he made a judgment call that had nothing to do with his own personal feelings.
“I’m somewhat disappointed, but not surprised” by the reaction, Mallar said Monday. He confirmed that he wouldn’t be working the polls on Election Day but said he was OK with the decision. “I don’t want to create animosity, and I certainly don’t want to make any more trouble for the city clerk’s office.”
Additional details associated with Mallar’s long-term status as an election official or the reasons behind his dismissal for the rest of this election cycle are considered a personnel matter, interim City Manager Bob Farrar said.
Gastia declined to comment on Mallar’s possible motive for denying his officer’s right to vote and said the entire incident has been a distraction.
“To be quite honest, there has been a lot of feedback from the public. This is a very big election here in this state,” the chief said. “At a very busy time the day before a major election, we didn’t need to have this happen.”
The chief said one of his officers is typically always on duty at the polls to protect the citizens, so safety should not have been a concern.
“Thankfully, we’ve never had incidents down there where it’s been necessary for an officer to react,” Gastia said.
Some readers have questioned whether Dearing should have voted while on duty. According to Dunlap, Maine is not among the 30 states that have laws requiring employees to give workers time off to vote, which means many people vote on work time.
“I see no problem with an officer voting while on duty, while in uniform and while armed. It’s been a history to allow police officers on duty to vote when it’s appropriate,” Gastia said. “As far as relinquishing a firearm, an officer is trained never to relinquish a firearm to anyone.”
As for Dearing, he said Monday that he planned to vote sometime Tuesday during his shift.