Most Portland residents will be able to vote at their usual location after all.

The Portland City Council scrapped a plan Monday to consolidate 11 polling places into three for the upcoming July primary. The City Clerk proposed the change in May because of a shortage of election workers during the pandemic. Many regulars are senior citizens who would be at higher risk for COVID-19. She told councilors earlier this month that she needed to hire more than 120 people to fill those vacancies.

But the council balked at the idea. They feared it would disenfranchise residents who could not travel further to their polling places, and it would create health risks for those who could still vote in person with longer lines and larger crowds. Community groups wrote an open letter to city leaders, raising similar concerns about voter access and encouraging them to maintain all 11 polling places.

“Three locations for a city of 67,000, with only two on-peninsula locations, threaten the people’s ability to cast a vote,” the letter said. “They place further burdens on Portlanders with disabilities, low-income Portlanders, parents, working people and young Portland residents.”

So city officials sent out last-minute pleas for poll workers, and the response in the last week was overwhelming. More than 100 people contacted the city clerk’s office on June 15, the same night the council emphasized the need for poll workers.

On Monday, one week later, City Clerk Katherine Jones said more than 300 people have sent in applications to work the election. More than 50 have already completed their paperwork. That response will allow the city to open 11 polling places as usual on July 14. Jones had created a backup plan for six polling places but told the councilors she would not need it.


“I just wanted to say thank you,” Jones said. “We have a significant amount of citizens that have come forward that we’ve asked to keep on our roster for November as well, for people that we may not be able to use.”

The city pays election workers at least $12 an hour.

The Portland Democratic City Committee was among the groups that raised concerns about the consolidation plan. Chairman Simon Thompson said Monday night that he was glad Portland “stepped up to protect our democracy.”

“I hope that as many voters as possible choose the safe option of voting by absentee ballot, but protecting in-person voting is so important this year and I’m glad people came together to do so,” Thompson wrote in an email Monday evening. “I look forward to seeing all polling locations open this November as well, and greatly appreciate the City Clerk’s efforts.”

State Sen. Ben Chipman, a Democrat whose district includes part of Portland, had also cautioned the councilors against consolidation. On Monday, he too thanked the people who applied to work during the election.

“These 11 neighborhood polling places are critical to making sure that voting is as accessible as possible,” he said.


Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said it is always a challenge to find election workers, and the pandemic is “bringing it into high relief.” The state received federal money to buy personal protective equipment for poll workers, and the governor relaxed the timeline for municipalities to consolidate their polling places.

But officials are still encouraging people to vote absentee if possible. The city has received more than 12,000 requests for absentee ballots, and Jones told the councilors Monday that her office has been so “swamped” with those requests that they worked over the weekend. The total turnout for the June 2018 primary was nearly 15,500, according to the city website.

The councilors on Monday thanked everyone who was involved in the final push for workers.

“Maybe it’s a lesson for all of us and the City Clerk’s office that sometimes we have to go above and beyond what we’ve normally done, and that goes with not only filling election workers but also filling boards and commissions,” Councilor Kim Cook said. “There are lots of folks out there who are willing and able to serve if we would engage.”

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau thanked the groups that shared the call to their email lists.

“That hopefully demonstrates the good that can be done if we actually work together to achieve the goal,” he said.

The only change in polling location will be for the Portland Exposition Building. That space is currently being used as a quarantine space for people who are experiencing homelessness, and it will not be available for the July 14 primary. The councilors voted Monday to move that polling place to the neighboring Troubh Ice Arena.

The addresses for other polling places in Portland can be found on the city’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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