Portland might consolidate its 11 polling places to three locations for the July primary in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a shortage of workers.

City Clerk Katherine Jones said Monday that a majority of the usual election workers are considered high risk, and they have told her they are unable or unwilling to staff the upcoming primary. At least one polling place – the Portland Exposition Building – is being used as a quarantine shelter. And other sites are asking the city to pay for additional cleaning after the polls close, or would not allow for adequate social distancing.

So Jones presented a plan during a Portland City Council workshop that would establish one polling place on the peninsula and another off the peninsula. Those locations would be the Cross Insurance Arena and the First Baptist Church. Peaks Island residents would still vote at their usual polling place.

“To have a successful election I have to have adequate staffing,” Jones wrote in a memo to councilors.

A public hearing and vote is scheduled for June 15. If approved, the city would still need Gov. Janet Mills to relax the rules on such a consolidation, which typically would not be allowed so close to the election.

Kristen Muszynski, a spokesperson for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, said Portland is not alone in its concern about election workers. While most municipalities have only one polling place, a small number of cities and towns are considering consolidation as well. Harpswell has already approved a plan to move three polling sites into one, she said, and Augusta and Lewiston are considering similar changes.

For those election workers who do participate this year, the state is working to get personal protective equipment to towns and cities.

“It is one of the general concerns we’re hearing from clerks,” Muszynski said. “We’re aware that a lot of our polling place workers are retirees and are concerned for their health.”

Councilors on Monday expressed tentative support but also said they were concerned about deterring voters by reducing the number of polling places.

“These are good sites,” Councilor Nick Mavodones said. “I wish we had a couple more that we could staff up. I’m concerned that there are people who would normally vote in this election who may not get out to vote.”

The primary elections were delayed because of the pandemic, and the state has encouraged absentee voting to reduce the number of people who gather on Election Day. Jones stressed that absentee ballots will be available at Portland City Hall up to and on Election Day.

She said the city has already received more than 5,000 requests for absentee ballots, compared to slightly more than 1,300 at this point ahead of the June 2018 primary. The total voter turnout that year was nearly 15,500, according to the city website.

“They can request one up to Election Day,” Jones said at the workshop. “They can come into City Hall on Election Day and cast an absentee ballot and not have to go to their polling place.”

In order to run all 11 polling places, Jones said, she would need more than 240 staff. The time between now and the primary is not enough to train replacements for those people who cannot work. In the consolidated plan, she estimated a minimum of 27 positions would be needed at each site, although the number of people needed to fill those jobs would be higher because the polling places typically offer multiple shifts per position.

The consolidation would come with a cost savings. The March 3 election cost more than $37,000, and more than $27,000 went to pay election workers. The estimated cost of the July 14 primary under the consolidated plan is roughly $16,700, and wages for election workers would cost slightly less than $12,000 of that budget.

Jones said each polling place would have four lines, and the ground would be marked for social distancing. The large sites would still have space for petitioners and poll observers. Her plan outlined a number of other safety protocols – election clerks would have plexiglass barriers, for example, and voters would be given a pen to take with them instead of leaving it for the next person.

“My concern is that … you’re going to have elderly people who have to wait in longer lines and walk further,” Councilor Tae Chong said.

And it is still unclear whether the city could face the same concerns in the general election.

“What I don’t want to do is set the precedent for November that we’re going to only have this many polling locations,” Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said. “I know you’re doing your best, but I don’t know what’s going to change between now and November, and it just concerns me that we’re here at this place for July.”

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