Voters line Congress Street outside Portland City Hall on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

One in a frequent series of stories examining Maine’s election system.

Maine’s COVID-19 cases are surging just days before thousands of voters will head to polling places across the state to cast their in-person ballots in the Nov. 3 election.

Public health and election officials have been preparing for pandemic voting since March and steered voters through an unusual statewide primary that was held in July. That election, which chose party candidates in races for the U.S. House and Senate, as well as the Maine Legislature, went off without producing any known COVID-19 infections.

But it’s expected far more voters will head to the polls for the general election Tuesday that features a presidential contest at the top of the ticket and one of the most costly and closely watched U.S. Senate races in state history.

Here’s what you need to know about what measures are being taken to protect you from COVID-19 on Election Day.

How different will my polling place look in 2020 compared to past elections?

One of the biggest differences you will notice is there are going to be far fewer voting booths in your polling place than in years past. Based on guidance from state health officials, election clerks have been advised to ensure there is a minimum of 6 feet of spacing between all booths.

In a typical year, state law simply requires municipalities to provide at least one voting booth for every 200 registered voters.

State health officials are also requiring that voting booths be sanitized after each use. That means some booths may be temporarily closed until election clerks can clean them for the next voter.

How about the number of people in the polling place?

The total number of people, including poll workers and poll watchers, will be capped at 50 in each room or enclosed area during any one period of time. So you may have to wait in line to vote.

What about that line?

It could be long, as social distancing requirements will keep those standing in line 6 feet apart as well. Election officials have also been directed to mark out a 6-foot spaces on the floor and in waiting areas to help those in line maintain adequate separation.

Chris Horne, a staffer with the Portland City Clerk’s Office, sits behind a plastic barrier while processing absentee ballots at Merrill Auditorium as a line of early voters snakes around the outskirts of the lobby on Thursday. Foot traffic is organized to flow in one direction. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

How about the election workers?

One thing that may stand out is you will likely see a lot of new faces. Many long-time polling place workers, often retirees who are more likely to have serious complications if they contract COVID-19, have opted out of this election. Fortunately a wave of new volunteers has stepped forward, but they may not be the familiar faces you are used to seeing when you go vote.

They will be required to wear appropriate personal protective equipment, including facial coverings, under the guidance of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Preventon, aimed at protecting them and you from COVID-19.

Will I have to wear a facial covering to vote?

This is a tricky one. An executive order by Gov. Janet Mills, which has the effect of law, requires you to wear a facial covering whenever you are in indoor public spaces or in outdoor spaces where adequate physical distancing can’t be achieved. You are strongly encouraged to adhere to this guidance and wear a face covering when you vote, but Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap has advised election officials that they cannot turn away a voter who has a constitutional right to vote if the person refuses to don a facial covering in the polling place or while waiting in line.

What if an election worker tests positive for COVID-19 either just before or after the election?

Election officials say they will follow the procedures for quarantine, testing and contact tracing as directed by the Maine Centers for Disease Control. Officials also said that poll workers will be unlikely to have any interactions with you that are longer than 15 minutes and are being discouraged from any unnecessary socializing with voters.

Will candidates still be allowed to greet voters?

Those running for office will still be allowed to visit polling places to greet you, but unless they are voting themselves will be required to remain outside. Candidates are advised to remain 6 feet away from each other and from you, and not to shake hands. They are also required to wear facial coverings.

What about those gathering voter signatures for petitions?

Signature gatherers will be required to wear facial coverings and must set up outside in a designated space that has been pre-arranged and pre-approved by local election officials.

What about poll watchers, are they allowed inside?

Yes. Election officials must provide space for at least one volunteer from each major political party, but they will be required to maintain 6 feet of separation, remain behind the established voting place guardrail and wear a facial covering. Poll watchers are not allowed to interfere with the voting or voter registration process.

What about the media?

Representatives of the news media will be allowed inside the polling places as space allows. They must wear face coverings and maintain 6 feet of distance from others and follow all the other polling place requirements, including that they may not record photographs or videos of actual ballots or interview you inside the polling place.

What else will be different in my polling place?

Beyond the spacing of voting booths, foot traffic in the polling place will be organized to flow in one direction. You will also be given single-use pens to fill out your ballot, and you will be asked to either keep the pen or deposit it in a box when you leave. There also will be ample amounts of hand sanitizer, and its use is encouraged.

There will also be no bake sales or other non-political charitable events allowed inside the voting place.

But at least I’ll be able to get my, “I Voted Today” sticker when it’s all over, right? 

Sadly, no. Election officials are being discouraged from passing out stickers in order to limit hand-to-hand contact or the creation of high-touch areas with boxes or bowls of stickers in them.

Do you have a question about Maine’s election system or how your vote will be counted? Send it to [email protected]

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