The Portland City Council voted unanimously Monday night to postpone the vote on an amended proposal to consolidate the city’s polling locations from 11 to six to next Monday.

Some councilors were concerned that the effort to recruit poll workers had not been sufficient, and Belinda Ray, Jill Duson, Justin Costa and Spencer Thidodeau wanted to make a last push to recruit poll workers.

The initial proposal by City Clerk Kathy Jones reduced the city’s polling locations to three, of which one would have been on Peaks Island. After opposition from members of the council and local political leaders, Jones brought forth an updated proposal that included six polling locations, one of which would still be on Peaks Island.

Jones told the council that she needs three more election wardens, and 126 more workers: 84 registered Republicans and 42 registered Democrats.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, in an interview Friday, said that finding enough poll workers has long been a challenge in the state, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue. Jones said in her initial memorandum to the council that one-third of the wardens who run polling locations said they would not work the upcoming election. Many of them are over 60 and are more susceptible to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Under the amended proposal, voting will be held at the First Baptist Church, the Kennedy and Carter Family Community Center on Peaks Island, the East End Community School, Reiche School, the Italian Heritage Center and the Grace Baptist Church. Mayor Kate Snyder said City Hall also will be open for voting.

Throughout the meeting many councilors expressed reservations regarding the consolidation, while recognizing the reality of the situation.

“I’m not going to second-guess the city clerk (when she says) we don’t have enough people,” Councilor Tae Chong said. “She’s done all this accounting and training and all that stuff, so that’s that’s just the reality.”

Costa noted that voters can vote early in person up to and on election day at the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall, which is one of the polling locations slated for closure.

Duson urged Jones to remain flexible should outreach efforts to find poll workers suddenly yield a large number of workers in need of training. She also asked that the clerk clarify to the public that the “volunteers” are in fact paid more than minimum wage.

“This should be on the front page of our website, just like our COVID alerts – it’s more important than our COVID alerts at this point because we know the COVID alerts – there should be something on the front page that says, ‘Here’s how you sign up, and you get paid,'” Ray said.

State Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, spoke out again against the resolution at Monday’s council meeting, worrying about both voter disenfranchisement and voter safety.

“I think that taking all of the residents who normally vote in 11 polling places and crowding them into six polling places in the middle of a pandemic doesn’t make any sense to me,” Chipman told the council. “This plan, I believe, puts our residents, the voters and the poll workers who are brave enough to work on election day at greater risk by increasing their exposure to more people. If anything we should be opening up more locations to spread things out more, not consolidate.”

Chipman went so far as to suggest that, in an absence of employees,  nonessential city employees be redirected to work the polls on July 14. City Manager Jon Jennings said they already have called upon city workers, but that city employees cannot be conscripted to work the polls.

Only one member of the public spoke out in favor of the amendment. Steven Scharf of Portland was worried about maintaining an equal number of poll workers from each party.

“I’m concerned (about your) ability to actually find enough workers from both parties to work the polls,” Scharf said. “We need to keep a balance between them and want to make sure that we maintain that balance.”

Simon Thompson, the chairman of the Portland Democratic City Committee, also spoke and requested that even if all 11 locations cannot be maintained in the July primary, that they be resurrected for the November general election.

Councilors Nicholas M. Mavodones Jr. and Chong also emphasized the importance that all 11 polling locations be open in November.

Portland’s order specifically says that the consolidation applies only to the July primary. There was some confusion about whether the councilors would need to vote again to undo the consolidation before the November general election, but they said they would not want to reduce the number of polling places for the fall.

Voters are still encouraged to vote via mail-in absentee ballots, which can be requested at the secretary of state’s website, or by calling the municipal clerk’s office in each city or town.

Anyone interested in working at the polls can apply on the city of Portland’s website. You do not need to be a Portland resident to apply.

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