After several members of Portland’s City Council and local political organizations raised concerns with a proposal by City Clerk Kathy Jones to consolidate the city’s 11 polling locations into three for the July 14 election, the council will take comments and vote Monday on an amended proposal.

Under the new plan, there would be six polling locations, including one on Peaks Island.

Citing a lack of poll workers, many of whom are elderly and at-risk for COVID-19, Jones initially proposed only three polling locations: one on Peaks Island, one on the peninsula and one off the peninsula.

“Currently one third of the Wardens are not willing to work this election,” Jones wrote to councilors in a May 27 memorandum, referring to individuals appointed to run elections at polling places. “The majority of the election clerks are in the high-risk category and are not willing to take a risk and work this election.”

Under the new plan, voting would be held at two of the three initially proposed locations: the First Baptist Church and the Kennedy and Carter Family Community Center on Peaks Island. Instead of one consolidated polling location at the Cross Insurance Arena, voters would go to the East End Community School, Reiche School, the Italian Heritage Center or the Grace Baptist Church depending on their precinct. 

Under state law, any proposal to consolidate polling locations must be subject to a public hearing at least 90 days prior to the election. But given the public health crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills shortened that period to 15 days before the election in a June 3 executive order. Several other cities, including Augusta and Lewiston, have already consolidated polling locations.

However, many leaders in Portland remained concerned about voter access and the long-term ramifications of such a change on voter access and turnout. According to Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, any consolidation of polls for the upcoming primary will remain in effect in November unless communities vote again to reverse the move.

In a June 3 open letter to the mayor, the council and the clerk, the Portland Democratic City Committee, the Maine People’s Alliance, the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists and others called on the city to maintain all 11 polling locations.

Simon Thompson, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, expressed some concerns, and is keeping an eye toward November.

“I’d be very concerned about the precedent that would be set for November given the gravity of November’s election,” Thompson said. “Ideally we’d see all 11 (polling locations) open, but they’re doing their best given the difficult circumstances.”

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau shared the sentiment.

“I don’t want to set a precedent that we’ll have (fewer polling locations) than we normally have,” Thibodeau said. “I’m glad we’re having the discussion now.”

Dunlap said a shortage of poll workers is not a new issue in Maine, but that the coronavirus pandemic is “bringing it into high relief.”

However, state Sen. Ben Chipman, a Democrat whose district includes part of Portland, says it’s “unacceptable” to close any locations.

“To go and close down locations under the new proposal is going to disenfranchise hundreds of voters across the city,” Chipman said. “I don’t think it would be difficult to find the workers that we need, especially with the high unemployment levels that we have right now.”

Chipman said he has reached out to Jones, who did not respond to a request to be interviewed on Friday, offering his help in recruiting poll workers for Portland. He said he has not received a response.

Chipman isn’t alone. The Secretary of State’s Office, the City Council, and the Maine Democratic Party are among those calling on voters to work at the polls. Dunlap is also encouraging absentee voting this election, and according the City Clerk’s Office, there had been over 8,500 requests for absentee ballots in Portland as of Friday.

Jones and Dunlap have both cited concerns about training new poll workers, a job they say can take time, experience, and a certain amount of good judgment.

Still, Chipman is concerned about the risk of spreading of the virus at densely populated polling locations because of the consolidation, and says officials should put time and energy into finding and training workers, rather than closing polling locations.

Dunlap said that the state is spending $121,000 of its CARES Act money on personal protective equipment for poll workers, and is asking municipalities to uphold the CDC-recommended social distancing guidelines at polling places.

Those wanting to work the polls can apply on the city of Portland’s website.

Absentee mail-in ballots can be requested at the secretary of state’s website, or by calling the municipal clerk’s office in each city or town.

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