May 24, 2019
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Maine faces a looming shortage of polling place workers

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Orono Town Clerk Shelly Crosby takes an early voting ballot from Karen Welch at the town office in Orono Monday.

Anne Baker was exercising at her neighborhood senior center when she first considered volunteering as an election clerk.

Her friend, who had been doing it a few years, enjoyed it and urged Baker to think about joining her. Having recently retired from her job as an accountant at a local law firm, Baker had the time, so she did.

That was eight years ago, when Baker was 68. She now trains new volunteers as a ward clerk in Bangor, where she’s been clerking at the polls since 2011. Spreading the word as it was spread to her, she has recruited her husband, Edward; a handful of friends; and two of her sisters.

[Everything you need to know about Maine’s 2018 elections]

Baker is the current prototype of the polling place volunteer in Maine — she’s older than 60, and she’s retired. Municipal clerks have long struggled to adequately staff elections, but an aging pool of willing workers is making this challenge more acute.

In 2016, about 88 percent of the 6,271 poll workers in Maine were older than 40 and about 60 percent were older than 60, according to data compiled by the secretary of state’s office. Maine’s numbers were slightly higher than national figures compiled that same year by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which found 56 percent of the country’s 917,694 poll clerks to be over the age of 61.

Jeff Pouland | BDN
Jeff Pouland | BDN
Election official Germaine Gooldrup greets voter Elizabeth LaCouture and her 6-year-old daughter, Clio, at the Bourque-Lanigan Post 5 American Legion in Waterville the morninf of Nov. 14, 2014. Gooldrup, a longtime Waterville resident, said she has worn her decorative top hat every year she has volunteered as an election official for more than a decade.

“We’ve always had people who are retired who devote a lot of time to their community, but now they’re the default demographic,” Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said Monday by phone.

In a process that heavily relies on help from citizen volunteers, staffing elections has typically involved some frantic maneuvering and slapdash organizing from town and city clerks. But in the past few decades, many clerks and Dunlap have observed a lasting cultural shift in residents’ sustained willingness to volunteer.

“We live in different worlds than our parents and grandparents did,” Dunlap said. “We’re in a very mobile society now. That transience carries with it a lack of rooting, and part of that rooting is civic participation.”

Dunlap and local election officials suspect it’s because more people have joined the workforce, they’re retiring later in life, and many don’t want to sacrifice a vacation day to work a 10- or a 12-hour shift at the polls for minimum wage — the going rate paid by most Maine municipalities.

Baker likes the camaraderie of clerking, which for her involves registering new voters and counting ballots at the end of the night.

“It’s seeing people that I know in the community who come in and vote,” she said. “I see people I used to work with, and they bring their little kids. I enjoy doing that.”

Community fellowship carries a certain appeal for volunteers in smaller towns, such as Lubec, where Town Clerk Renee Gray doesn’t normally have a problem finding the fewer than 10 people she needs to staff an election. Those paid volunteers “enjoy the process” of seeing neighbors and friends cycle through the polling place, she said.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Election clerk Patti Gagne explains the ballots to a voter in Lewiston on June 12, 2018.

But in Bath, where the average age of clerks is about 75, City Clerk Mary White said, “the pool of workers is getting more limited by the year.” Ten or 15 years ago, “we saw the change coming,” she said.

There are also limitations to having a mostly homogenous pool of workers over the age of 65 or 70, many clerks have said. “It’s difficult. As you age, you do get more health issues, so we’re constantly watching and adjusting,” Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin said after the June election.

Orono Town Clerk Shelly Crosby agrees. Typically Crosby needs about 50 volunteers for an election to run smoothly. Often that involves working a long day, between nine and 12 hours, which is sometimes hard for her older clerks. To help meet that threshold this year, she’s getting help from about 40 political science students at the University of Maine, and she’s hopeful that early exposure to this sort of civic engagement will help them develop long-lasting habits that follow them into adulthood.

Sensing the future challenge to find people like Baker, Ellsworth City Clerk Heidi Noel Grindle wonders if it be worthwhile to invoke a mandatory civic requirement so people aren’t penalized for taking a day off from work.

“I wish it could be handled like jury duty,” she said. After all, helping to fulfill the democratic process and serving as a juror are both essential civic functions, she said.

Beyond the dwindling pool of volunteers, state law requires each polling location be staffed with equal numbers of registered Republican and Democratic workers, which has exacerbated matters for Grindle.

Before the June election, Grindle called the state secretary of state’s office “in a panic,” because she couldn’t find an equal number of registered party workers. Dunlap said there’s very little his office can do when they receive calls like Grindle’s, except try and dispense helpful tips.

“If you’re a town clerk, what’s the answer? I wish I knew,” he said.

Grindle recently resorted to looking outside city limits, across Hancock County, for anyone willing to help. She’s able to do this legally, as long as she doesn’t deprive another town of its election workers.

“This is the first one that’s really worrying me,” she said of the Nov. 6 election, for which she’s had to “grovel” for volunteers. “I think it’s just going to keep getting harder.”

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