Municipal election officials across the state are exploring options for conducting the July primary elections without many of the poll workers that they have come to depend on. Some workers say they won’t be showing up because of concerns about the coronavirus.
Municipal officials say most poll workers are retired and considered at high risk for COVID-19 and the serious complications it can cause. And they know it. Kathy Montejo, Lewiston City Clerk, says she is hearing from colleagues across the state about the difficulty in recruiting people to staff local elections.
“This municipal clerk has a municipal election in June and, of course, the state election in July. She called every single one of her election workers, none of them are willing to work at the polls.”
Montejo was on a forum held by the League of Women Voters on ways to improve voter turnout during a pandemic. Susan Skidgell is deputy clerk for three small towns in Aroostook County, Castle Hill, Mapleton and Chapman. She says none of her usual poll workers has said “no”, nor have they said “yes”. She said all of them have expressed concern about the coronavirus and were still waiting to decide.
“In Lewiston we normally have seven polling places and hire about 150 workers, we are looking at consolidating down to one location,” says Montejo.
And Montejo says that move will be accompanied by a major publicity campaign to urge voters to cast absentee ballots instead of voting in person. That’s a strategy several municipalities and groups are considering to reduce pressure on in-person polling places and increase voter participation.
Lori Parham of AARP-Maine says her constituents are also thinking about safety.
“They are very concerned, and they are really wanting to vote from home,” Parham says. “So our primary message right now as we go into July is that we are urging people to vote safely and vote from home.”
But while embracing efforts to bolster voting by mail, some advocates warn there still should be an option for in-person voting.
“We think about people who lack a mailing address, and we think about folks who may have a disability or face language barriers,” says Robyn Merrill with Maine Equal Justice. “We have to make sure that we are not disenfranchising any of these folks.”
Efforts to encourage the use of absentee ballots are happening at the local level and through a statewide coalition. Mainers are already familiar with the process — some 35 percent of the vote cast here in the 2016 presidential contest were by absentee ballot.
Originally published 4:39 p.m. May 1, 2020