Maine’s primary election in July was unlike any our state has seen before. With COVID-19 to contend with, the Secretary of State’s Office worked with town and city clerks to make changes. A record number of Mainers voted absentee, and those who went to the polls were spaced apart as election clerks provided voters with a safe environment to exercise their right to vote. These were successful steps, but more will need to be done for November.

Maine has some of the highest participation of eligible voters in the country and a rich culture of civic engagement. Turnout this fall will be three or more times as many voters than we saw in the primary, including many more first-time and low-frequency voters less familiar with absentee voting. With increasing concerns about the mail service and the ongoing threat of COVID-19, there is much to do.

To make voting a possibility for every eligible Mainer, we need to expand opportunities for voter registration, maximize the use of absentee voting and ensure safe and efficient in-person voting on Election Day.

When it comes to voter registration, Maine has long been a forward thinker on remote registration, but we do not have a full-scale online voter registration system. There may not be time to implement such a system this fall, but we can institute a secure online process that allows Mainers to submit their voter registration information and documentation electronically.

For every voter, we must provide a strong absentee option, as it’s the best way to adhere to public health guidelines. To start, we need to streamline the absentee ballot return process. The governor has taken an important step by encouraging ballot drop boxes in every town, but many people are still likely to return their ballots by mail. Ideally, we would prepay postage for all voters, but at a minimum, town and city clerks should include an insert indicating the amount of return postage necessary.

We should also provide plenty of time to receive and return ballots by distributing them to municipalities 45 days before the election, rather than 30 days as it is now. And rather than require absentee ballots to be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, they should simply need to be postmarked by that time.

It’s important to note that not all absentee voting will happen by mail. In Maine we have in-person absentee voting. I am grateful to our municipal clerks for managing that process, but many offices have limited hours of operation. Leading up to the election, those hours should be extended to what they were in past years. In order to authenticate ballots, town and city clerks should be empowered to contact voters who have returned absentee ballots without signing them.

To ensure the safety and efficiency of in-person voting on Election Day, we should take proactive steps to support municipalities in operating all polling places. By consolidating polling places, we run the risk of exacerbating crowding and confusing voters. One way to ensure towns have enough poll workers is to waive the requirement that poll workers live in the county where they are poll working.

Many of these changes can’t happen without funding. The federal CARES Act, a bill that provided states funding for COVID-19 relief, dedicated $3 million to Maine’s elections. As a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, I have spent a lot of time looking over the federal relief package and see the steps outlined here as an effective and appropriate use of some of those funds.

Voters also need to take action to secure their vote. It’s more important than ever to make a plan. Be sure you’re registered or have all the materials you need to do so. If you’re voting absentee, request your ballot early and return it quickly, and if you’re voting in person, know where to go and build in time to wait.

A lot of work has to be done, but Maine is a leader on making our elections accessible. We need that leadership now more than ever. If we act quickly in the coming weeks, we can ensure that, even in a pandemic, every eligible Mainer has the chance to vote in a safe and smooth way.


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