Your vote counts – when you cast one, but many people in York County stayed away from the polls on June 11. COURTESY IMAGE

YORK COUNTY — Whether caused by choosing not to vote, not knowing there was an election or some other reason, the overwhelming majority of people registered to vote in York County’s three largest cities on June 11, didn’t exercise their right to do so.

That is despite a number of methods municipalities employ to try engage voters and despite the easy availability of absentee voting which allows people to vote at their convenience, rather than going to the polls on Election Day.

While the state does not directly involve itself in municipal elections, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap pointed out that these days, voting in elections, whether on state or local issues,  is the easiest it has ever been.

“This process is wide open, we don’t have any barriers left to take down,” said Dunlap on Tuesday, pointing to Maine’s same-day voter registration and the ability to vote absentee without a reason. As well, a new initiative passed by both House and Senate, and poised to be signed by Gov. Janet Mills, will make it even easier for people to register to vote, with the availability of automatic voter registration when obtaining or renewing a driver’s license.

In Biddeford, Saco and Sanford, the June 11 ballot was a short one. The only two issues decided by voters was whether to validate passage of their community’s annual school budget and whether they wanted to continue to be able to vote on the matter for the next three years.

Those who turned out said yes to both questions. But in Biddeford, just 1.7 percent of the city’s 14,640 voters cast ballots on the $38.9 million school budget; in Saco, 3.88 percent of the city’s 15,293 voters went to the polls to vote on the $40.5 million school budget and in Sanford, 4 percent of the city’s 14,321 voters cast ballots on the $53.9 million school budget (which contains reimbursable school construction costs).

It isn’t the first time the turnout has been this low. In 2009, Sanford’s was also about 4 percent and in 2015,  Saco’s turnout was 3.79 percent. Biddeford’s turnout was 191 voters in 2011 – the percentage  was not available on online city records. In 2019, Biddeford’s 1.7 percent turnout represented 254 votes.

Some of the towns fared a little better. In Old Orchard Beach, 6.8 percent  of voters turned out to cast a ballot on the school budget, said  Town Clerk Kim McLaughlin. In Limerick, where the school budget vote for RSU 57 was the only topic on the ballot, there are 2,191 registered voters and 116 turned out to vote, said Deputy Town Clerk Deedee Tibbetts, slightly more than 5 percent of those eligible.

Clerks say their municipalities do what they can to spread the word.

Biddeford City Clerk Carmen Morris said notice of the June 11 election and availability of absentee ballots appeared in local newspapers 15 times. The notice was posted on the front page of the city’s website; it was included in the weekly edition of the Biddeford Beat – a weekly city newsletter – three or four times, she estimated; it was posted on the electronic message board in front of the Police Department for a week prior to the election; on the City’s Facebook page and discussed at City Council meetings.

“I honestly don’t know what more we could have done to get the word out,” said Morris. “We have been conducting the school budget validation referendum election for about 10 years now, so you would think that folks are aware of this election each June.  This year’s low turnout was predictable. Each year we do this election without piggy backing on a state election, the turnout is woeful.”

In Saco, similar methods were used. Saco City Clerk Michele Hughes said messages announcing the upcoming June vote were placed on digital message boards at Saco Fire Department and at the train station; in local newspapers; on the city’s website and on social media. Saco also posts sample ballots and the school budget with the notice of election in each of the seven wards. She said a banner is hung in City Hall notifying voters they can pick up absentee ballots.

In Sanford, City Clerk Sue Cote said the notice of elections was posted in eight locations in the community as is required in all elections, and it was posted on the city’s website, was announced during the public meetings of the Sanford Budget Committee, during  City Council meetings, and the school department sent out a message on their alert system that goes to parents and guardians.

“Mailing a notice to each voter for all elections is not an affordable or practical option,” said Cote. “I am open to any reasonable suggestions.”

There were news stories featuring all three city ballots online and in print prior to voting day.

Still, despite each community’s efforts, some on social media said they weren’t aware there was an election.

“Voters have proven that they don’t care about voting on the school budget – for a whole host of reasons, I would imagine,” said Morris, in Biddeford. She suggested that the state legislature repeal the school budget validation referendum altogether.

“In Biddeford, the school budget is vetted, first by the School Committee (who are elected officials), then goes through two readings of the Council (who are also elected officials). Citizens vote for the elected officials and trust them to do the necessary work – which includes coming up with and approving a school budget,” Morris said. “Maybe voters feel that this is enough of a process and they don’t feel the need to cast their own vote. In the almost 10 years that we have been conducting this election, I have not figured out what gets voters out to vote when it’s just this issue.”

Dunlap said turnout is also low – about 10 to 11 percent – for state elections in June when the ballot is light.

“The first time my daughter voted, in Old Town, I took her to City Hall; when we got there, there was no one there. In a presidential cycle, we’d be waiting 50 deep,” Dunlap said.

The last presidential elections saw a 73 percent turnout, Dunlap noted, who also acknowledged that  meant 27 percent of registered voters chose not to cast a ballot.

Dunlap theorized that the lack of engagement could be because in 2019, people are hearing “a blizzard of information coming from all directions,” and he believes people paid more attention before the 24 hours news cycle.

Those who do vote, he said, no matter how short the ballot, would “walk through a seven-foot snowdrift” to do so.

Dunlap pointed out that in Australia, people who don’t vote face a fine. In the United States, there’s a right to vote and a right not to vote, he said.

“Ultimately, it lies with personal responsibility,” said Dunlap. “It’s up to you to find out what’s going on.”

Voters, mark your calendars. The next election is Tuesday, Nov. 5.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 780-9016 or [email protected]

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