The COVID-19 pandemic has caused almost everything in our lives to change, from how people work, attend school, shop and much more. And as a result of the restrictions put in place because of the coronavirus, the way people vote in the November election will be anything but normal.

To facilitate voting, Governor Janet Mills issued an executive order on Thursday, Aug. 27, that gives municipal clerks more time to process absentee ballots ahead of the election, imposes coronavirus-related capacity restrictions on polling places, allows Maine residents an additional six days to register to vote by mail and extends the window for casting an in-person absentee ballot prior to the Nov. 3 elections.

The executive order’s provisions:

• Give Maine residents until Oct. 19, rather than Oct. 13, to register to vote by mail or by third-person. In-person registration will still be allowed on Election Day.

• Allow local election officials to begin counting absentee ballots seven days before the election, up from the four days now allowed under law.

• Provide an extra day for voters to cast absentee ballots in person at their polling place prior to Nov. 3.

• Place a limit of 50 people inside a single polling place at any given time or “such lesser number as allows sufficient space to meet the six-foot physical distancing requirement between persons.”

• Require signage and ground lines marking six-foot distances between those standing in line to vote, including outside of the polling place.

• Suspend the requirement that polling places provide at least one voting booth for every 200 registered voters if it would lead to crowding or booths spaced less than six feet apart.

Mills also authorized Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to implement the order with guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democratic process, and I take seriously our responsibility to ensure that every Maine person has the opportunity to cast their ballot and to do so in a way that protects their health and safety during this ongoing pandemic,” Mills said in a statement. “The steps taken in this executive order are prudent measures that will facilitate access to voting while protecting the health of voters, poll workers, and election officials.”

Protecting people’s health during the voting process — with provisions such as those in Mills’ Executive Order —  is paramount, Old Orchard Beach Town Clerk Kim McLaughlin said in an Aug. 27 email.

“The most important thing is that voters feel safe in how they vote,” she said.

Old Orchard Beach has taken precautions to protect the health of staff, volunteers and residents during the November election, McLaughlin said, adding that town officials strongly advise people to vote absentee for a couple of reasons.

“First and foremost to protect the election staff, of which many will be in the high risk category, but still want to do their civic duty,” she said. “Secondly, the lines will be very long and I don’t want to see a voter frustrated because they have to wait.”

McLaughlin said the town is pursuing ways to make absentee voting easier.

“We have a drop box for voters to return their ballot if they do not wish to mail it back,” she said, and “for the 30 days prior to election, we will have a tent out front for people to stand under while they wait to get in.”

But despite the changes mandated by the governor’s Executive Order, there will still be challenges come the election, especially when voting in person, Biddeford City Clerk Carmen Morris said in an email on Aug. 27.

“The biggest challenge is the 50 person restriction within the polling place,” Morris said. Both Biddeford and Old Orchard have consolidated voting to a single location. Biddeford residents vote at Biddeford High School’s Tiger Gym on Maplewood Avenue.

“At a typical election, I would normally have about 50 Ward Workers, never mind the voters!” she said. “I’m obviously going to have to figure out how to best change polling place operations in an effort to use fewer Ward Workers. I don’t have all the answers yet … but more than likely, our polling place will be set up and operate much like it did for the July election.

“The biggest consequence of the 50 person restriction will be the undoubtedly long lines of voters waiting to get into the polling place to vote,” she said. “We also have to consider the folks who will need to register to vote and will wait until Election Day to do so at the poll. This will only add to the 50-person count and be an additional line unless I can figure a way to move the voter registration process right out of the polling place area.”

Because of some voters fearful on contracting COVID-19 and for other reasons, both clerks predict the number of people voting absentee will be much higher than ever before.

In last year’s election, Old Orchard Beach had 441 absentee ballots, and there were 2,517 returned in November 2016, during the last presidential election, she said.

As of the morning of Aug. 27, McLaughlin said, “we have already had 945 requests, (as well as some that had yet to be entered into the system) and we have over a month to go, I’m predicting we will receive many more absentee requests than we ever have had before, and I’ve been here 20 years.”

Morris, who is expecting more than double the 4,318 absentee ballots that were returned for the November 2016 election, said she wasn’t sure the extra time allotted would be enough.

“The issuing and handling of a huge amount of absentee ballots” will be a “major challenge,” Morris said.

So far, she said, her office has received 2,800 absentee requests for this November’s election, which is “most defininately” ahead of where it was at the same point in time in both 2019 and 2016..

The number of registered voters in Biddeford was 14,242 on Election Day, 2016; 14,773 on Election Day; and is 15,216 as of Aug. 27, with more than one month to go prior to the election.

“I expect that we will more than likely at least double the amount of absentee (ballots) issued in 2016,” she said.

Under the Executive Order, clerks have three more days to process absentee ballots prior to the election.

McLaughlin said the extra time will be helpful.

Morris agreed. “That will be supremely helpful in hopefully getting a majority of the absentee ballots processed prior to Election Day,” she said.

However, Morris said “early processing of absentee ballots does not allow for generating results — we simply run the ballots through the voting machines and then bring the memory sticks to the poll on Election Day and run results at the end of the night.”

“(The election) will be challenging at best,” Morris said. “I will continue to work with my staff here, and my fellow department heads to come up with what will hopefully be some efficient ways of handling an unprecedented Election Day situation.”

Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this story. 

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