May 17, 2020
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Maine cities and towns push absentee voting for July election reshaped by virus

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Louise Wilcox checks her ballots after coming out of a booth while voting in the primary election, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Mechanic Falls. Cities and towns are looking to encourage absentee voting for the July primary challenged by the coronavirus.

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With most Mainers hunkered down amid the coronavirus outbreak, Susan Skidgell has been calling regular voters and asking if they want to request an absentee ballot for the July election.

As deputy clerk for Mapleton, Castle Hill and Chapman — three Aroostook County towns with a combined population of 2,700 — she is trying to minimize the number of people who show up to polls on July 14 while ensuring the pandemic does not stop anyone from voting.

“I have the time to do that right now,” Skidgell said. “I don’t know that the bigger towns would have the time to do that.”

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Maine is regularly one of the states with the highest voter turnout and has ranked highly in studies on ballot access with no-reason-necessary absentee ballots and same-day registration. The onus will be on cities and towns to ensure a safe summer election as they struggle to find poll workers. Even registering to vote is more of a challenge with municipal offices closed.

It all could make for a hard-to-administer election in which Mainers will choose the Democratic nominee to face U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and decide a Republican primary to challenge Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District. There are also more than three dozen contested primaries for state and county-level offices and two bond questions.

“Unless something radically changes here in the next three or four weeks, I’m not sure that we would see a major change in how we would be conducting the July election,” said Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, whose office oversees elections.

Election officials don’t yet know how much personal protective equipment they will be able to obtain, or how much will be required come July. They are still sorting through how frequently voting booths might need to be sanitized and how to keep voters away from one another.

There is also a shortage of poll workers, who are often retirees among those most at risk for serious virus complications. Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin said 60 of her normal poll workers do not want to work due to concerns about the virus. She thought she had enough workers for now, but did not have reserves “in the bullpen” if anyone got sick.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo usually recruits around 150 poll workers to serve seven polling stations. This year, recruitment is well short, and the city council will vote next week on a measure to consolidate to just one polling place.

That risks a large crowd, which is why Lewiston hopes to encourage voters to use absentee ballots instead. Montejo said the city has received several hundred absentee ballot requests already, more than what would be expected several months before an election, and would be ramping up advertising in the coming weeks.

Under Maine law, any registered voter can request an absentee ballot by contacting their town office or filling out an online form. Ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted. In-person voting is still typically dominant, with absentees making up just under a third of voters in 2018 and 2016 general elections and a lesser share in primaries.

Dunlap said that the state contemplated an all-absentee election, but abandoned that idea due to concerns about what would happen if town offices, which are responsible for processing absentee ballots, were shut down. Absentee voting is generally costlier than in-person voting, Dunlap said, as it involves more steps and requires the state to pay for stamps and envelopes.

A federal coronavirus relief bill passed in late March includes funding for states to modify elections, though it requires states to chip in too. To access $3.3 million in available funds, the state would have to spend additional $658,000 of its own money beyond the roughly $500,000 it budgeted for, Dunlap said.

“If you don’t get the match, then you have to pay all that money back, so we’re trying to be prudent with that,” he said.

In a proposal submitted to the federal government last month, the state indicated it plans to use the federal money to defray the costs of sending and processing absentee ballots and provide personal protective equipment for poll workers. Advocacy groups including the League of Women Voters have called for the state to take additional steps, such as mailing ballots to all registered voters, a measure implemented by a handful of states, including New Jersey.

Activists have also called for changes around voter registration. New voters can still register by printing a card online and mailing it to their town office. But Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices and college campuses — two locations where young voters are likely to register — are closed.

“No-reason absentee ballot requests are fantastic,” said Julian Snow, the state director of NextGen Maine, a progressive organization aiming to promote youth turnout. “But they don’t address the needs of folks who are yet to be registered.”

Thirty-nine states and Washington, D.C., offer online voter registration, but implementing such a system in Maine would require an act of the Legislature, Dunlap said.

Uncertainty about absentee ballots and registration has worried candidates. Two dozen legislative candidates wrote a letter to Gov. Janet Mills in early May asking her to consider measures including expanding staffing and early voting, and conducting a post-primary review to determine adjustments needed for the November general election.

“If we don’t take steps to make sure every eligible Mainer can vote in the middle of this pandemic, we allow the virus to weaken the strength of our democracy,” said Charles Skold, a Democrat running for a Maine House of Representatives seat in Portland who signed the letter.

Watch: What will it take for COVID-19 to go away?

 


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