Town offices are closed. Maine schools are closed. And all gatherings are prohibited under a statewide stay-at-home order designed to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But Maine is supposed to be gearing up for a primary election in just a few weeks, using a process that typically requires town offices, polling stations (often in schools) and large groups of people sharing public spaces.

Election Day is June 9, outside the bounds of the state’s most restrictive order, which runs through April 30. But there is no way to know whether the pandemic will have subsided by then, and it’s just as likely that the order will be extended, at least in part, into May, as it is that the order will expire.

Maine needs to have an election, but it doesn’t need to look like elections have looked in the past. Just as Mainers have gotten used to social distancing in the grocery store, we will have to get used to different ways of casting a ballot that won’t put voters or election clerks at risk. The June primary, which will also have a bond issue on the ballot, will provide an important dry run for the general election in November – when, if COVID-19 behaves like the flu, the virus could be making a fall comeback.

The Legislature has given Gov. Mills broad powers to make sure that the election can be held with maximum participation and minimum risk to public health. She needs to act soon.

Among the most important decisions she faces is the date of the election. Since it’s unlikely that life will be back to normal by June 9, Mills should push back the date of the election by at least a month. That will be unpopular with candidates and political parties because it will shorten the general election campaign season, but too much uncertainty is ahead to risk calling an election in just 60 days.

However, changing the date won’t be enough. This election, and all the elections that follow, should make maximum use of mail-in ballots to protect the health of voters and clerks.

Maine already allows no-excuse absentee voting. Any registered voter can request a ballot by mail. But other states go much further.

Washington and Oregon conduct all of their elections by mail. Registered voters receive their ballot without requesting it and return it postmarked by Election Day. That’s not the only way their elections differ from Maine’s. Those states have open primaries, where anyone can vote for a party’s nominee without being enrolled in a party (so every voter gets the same ballot), and they impose deadlines for registration. In Maine, where we have closed primaries and allow registration up to and on Election Day, a strict vote-by-mail system would not work without changing the law.

But there is more that Maine can and should do to make sure that registered voters take advantage of their ability to vote from home. The state should send absentee ballots to registered voters without waiting for them to request them. At the very least, every voter should get a postcard informing them of their right to request a ballot in time to participate in the election.

And Maine should follow the lead of other states to permit online voter registration. Schools have moved studies online, doctors have expanded their use of telemedicine, videoconferencing has taken the place of many office meetings. Even without the COVID-19 outbreak, it didn’t make sense to require people to show up in person at town hall to register to vote. But at a time when the government is telling us to minimize face-to-face interactions, it makes even less sense for the same government to require face-to-face interaction when we want to exercise a constitutional right.

All of these changes would alter the traditions of Election Day, from the candidates shaking hands outside the polling place to the local PTO bake sale. We won’t see the gatherings of supporters in hotel event rooms on television and we may not even know the winners for a few days as the votes cast at the deadline are delivered in the mail.

But none of those traditions is as important to our democracy as maintaining fair elections with the broadest possible voter participation. Maine has always been a leader in voter turnout, and we should maintain that tradition – even if it means abandoning the way things have been done in the past.


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