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Maine Secretary Of State Talks Voter Turnout, Election Safety During The Pandemic

Nick Woodward
Maine Public
On Tuesday morning, poll workers were reporting low in-person turn out.

As he does every election, Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has spent the day visiting polling places and answering questions from voters. Maine Public's Senior Political Correspondent Mal Leary caught up with Dunlap at the Augusta Civic Center to ask him about election safety and voter turnout during the pandemic.

Leary: Mr. Secretary, you've been visiting a number of polling places today. Have we got any problems going on, or is it going pretty smooth?

Dunlap: It's going very smoothly. You know, we spent the last three months trying to figure out what this election was going to look like, and thinking about how do you conduct an election at the time of a pandemic, something that we've never had to do — we haven't had to do this in over 100 years. And the time that we've devoted to this, and working with the clerks, and listening to what people's concerns were, and what we had to do to protect people, I think it's really paid off today.

We spent about $121,000 to provide personal protective equipment for all poll workers. I've gone to polling places — Old Town, Ellsworth, Lewiston, Portland, here in Augusta, and I'm on my way now to Bangor. And what we've seen everywhere we've gone is that the layouts of the polling places have been very thoughtfully designed, enhancing social distancing, making use of those Plexiglas barriers, people using sanitizer, making use of the pens that we provided. It was our intent, by the way, that they would take the pens with them. But a lot of towns have been collecting them, which is actually pretty smart because they can use them again in November after they've been properly sanitized and everything. So it's all worked out really well.

We've had a few glitches here and there, mostly issues around some balky tabulators here and there, a few questions about people putting signs in front of polling places and that sort of thing. All very routine questions to answer for an election day.

I think it'll be higher, a bit higher because of the absentees, and because of the awareness around the election. As we've had this public discussion about ‘how do you administer an election in a time of a pandemic?’ So with people thinking about that, it raises awareness that yes, they're citizens, they have a right to vote. As of yesterday, we issued almost 200,000 absentee ballots which is about 20% turnout. So whatever we see coming in today will obviously be on top of that. I don't think it would be outlandish, outlandish to see a range of 25 to 30% overall turnout in this election, which is high for a primary. It's a great problem to have.

In some other states, you know, there's been problems with people and masks. Have you had any instances of that?

We have not heard about any conflicts about masks. You know, the one question I had this morning is somebody had a Trump 2020 mask on, and so he said you probably shouldn't wear that. I said, no a voter can wear these things into the polls. Trump's not on the ballot anyway. So it's not even really an issue. But no real conflicts about masks.

Some of the questions that we've gotten have been around, can a voter be turned away because they're not wearing a mask? And the answer is no, you have a fundamental right to vote. We recommend a mask, we ask people to wear them, we provided them to the poll workers. But if somebody shows up in a polling place, doesn't have a mask, they're still gonna be able to vote.

Ed note: interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.