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Parties, Advocates Tap Hundreds Of Volunteer Poll Watchers To Help Ensure Election Integrity

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Susan Turcotte, assistant city clerk, disinfects a table after it was used by a resident to fill out an absentee ballot during early voting, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine.

High turnout and high tension have led to deep concerns about the integrity of the election that will reach a crescendo Tuesday. In Maine, advocacy groups and election staff are working to ensure that citizens come away knowing that their votes count — and will actually be counted.

Lara Rosen used to canvass for Democratic candidates in the Portland area, but this year she got a new gig.

“This year I became really motivated to get involved in nonpartisan work related to ensuring the integrity of our elections,” she says.

Rosen is volunteering as a poll watcher for the League of Women Voters.

“Because it’s not a partisan issue and really making sure that every voter is able to cast their ballot and have the vote count is what’s driving me this election,” she says.

Rosen says she expects to visit various polling places in Cumberland County, acting as a neutral observer of the process.

“We’re trained to look for — intimidation is certainly one of them. But also are people leaving the lines because they are too long? Are people running into issues with registering? Are COVID safety precautions being followed?” she says.

This is the first year that the league has launched a comprehensive poll-watching effort here. Local director Anna Kellar says a small pilot project during the July primaries went well, and now well more than 100 people have volunteered for the general election.

“And overall Maine elections are conducted very well, our town clerks do a great job,” Kellar says.

Kellar says the league expects that most problems that might crop up will be minor. But in today’s overheated political environment, Kellar says there are concerns about ad hoc poll-watchers creating tensions in or outside voting places. And the League is assigning some poll-watchers to specific municipalities with a recent history of hate crimes.

“We’re not expecting there to be big disturbances or militia people or any of that. But there is a possibility of it. So our observers are going to be looking out for any attempts at intimidation, people driving a truck into a parking lot with blaring loud music, things like this, any different scale of things that could be attempted,” Kellar says.

Kellar says local election wardens are preplanning with local law enforcement to ensure security. In Bangor, warden Cathy Lemin says she’s heard from a lot of overly nervous voters.

“Unfortunately a lot of media or outside people, they’ve really stirred things up and caused people to question things. And I honestly can say I totally believe in the integrity of the process here in Bangor,” she says.

Instead of skullduggery or intimidation, Lemin says she’s focused on making sure that Bangor’s big voting hall — downtown’s Cross Insurance Center — is properly sectioned off to ensure social distancing.

And she says even with this year’s record absentee voting, Election Day turnout is likely to be strong.

“Usually we do have one or two (police) officers on hand. I think this year there may be a couple more, simply because of volume,” Lemin says.

In addition to election workers and volunteers, there are other resources voters can turn to if they have concerns. The Maine chapter of the ACLU, for instance, is running a voter protection hotline.

And in addition to their usual get get-out-the vote efforts, the major parties have been training volunteers to look for irregularities, with observers on hand as well.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says he’s seen no evidence of an organized effort to disrupt Maine’s election. He adds, though, that something new crops up every year.

“We have had conversations with the governor’s office, Public Safety, the attorney general’s office, emergency management,” he says. “and what we are preparing is a quick phone train where if a warden gets a situation they are having a hard time managing they can call us and we can get them directly to a resource within minutes.”

League of Women Voters observers like Rosen say their best role in all this may be to bear witness to the essential validity of the election.

“A source that everybody can trust, nonpartisan, that can help us say, like, ‘yes we had our elections, they were fair, they went smoothly and we can provide that validation,’” she says.

Some polls in Maine will open as early as 6 a.m., with state law requiring all to be up and running by 10 a.m. The polls close at 8 p.m.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.