Portland council cool to request to limit balloting to 3 polling places

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The City Council is weighing a proposal to consolidate Portland’s polling places for the July 14 primary elections in part because a large number of poll workers are unwilling to work due to coronavirus concerns.

In a June 1 workshop, City Clerk Katherine Jones proposed reducing the 11 polling stations in the city to three, at the Cumberland County Civic Center, First Baptist Church at 360 Canco Road, and the Peaks Island Community Center.

Councilors raised concerns about the proposal, however, with several indicating they would like more than three polling locations.

Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones told the City Council the limited number of election workers
willing to work the July 14 primary election is “greatly concerning.”

Jones said the city does not expect to have enough election clerks to staff all of its usual polling places after the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention advised election workers to stay home if they are in high-risk categories for COVID-19.

In a normal election, 242 staff are needed for all 11 locations, Jones said, but more staff will be needed this election at each location to comply with safety requirements, for example, to track the number of people in the voting area, let people know when they can enter, and ensure that 6-foot distances are maintained in lines.

She estimated that 27 staff would be needed per location.

In a memo to the council, Jones listed some of the safety measures that will be taken on Election Day.

Voters waiting to enter a polling place will wait in four lines, marked at 6-foot intervals. At check-in tables, election clerks and ballot clerks would be behind Plexiglas barriers. Each voter would be given a new pen to use and take out with them. Staff will wipe down booths after each use. The consolidated locations will also provide room for poll watchers and petitioners.

Some of the standard polling places are not adequate for physical distancing, Jones said, and others – like the Italian Heritage Center and St. Pius X Church – have asked that the city provide a thorough cleaning after the elections, which is not in the budget.

Another polling place, the Portland Exposition Building, is not available because it is being used by the city as a COVID-19 quarantine location for people experiencing homelessness. If consolidation is not approved, that location would be replaced by the Troubh Ice Arena, she said.

Because of the pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills has extended the deadline for requesting absentee ballots to Election Day, which may relieve some pressure on the polling locations; Jones said the city had received more than 5,000 requests as of June 1.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said he is concerned that some people who would normally vote might not do so in this election for COVID-related reasons.

“But I’d hate for it to be because they have to drive a considerable distance across town,”  he said. “I frankly think we could have another location and it costs a little bit of money to clean it up after I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”

Councilor Belinda Ray agreed and suggested that having fewer workers would bring savings that could go toward cleaning costs.

Councilor Tae Chong said he supported consolidation and said City Hall could effectively be another polling location because people may file absentee ballots there on Election Day. He said his concern about the consolidation was it could mean longer distances to walk and longer waiting lines at each location, which would be a problem for elderly or disabled people.

He suggested exploring drive-thru style polling to relieve pressure on the consolidated sites, if the pandemic continues into the November general election.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said he would like the city to open more than four polling sites, and Councilor Jill Duson pushed for six. She also suggested assigning volunteers to cover some of the extra staffing needs for safety-related tasks that do not involve touching ballots.

Councilor Pious Ali suggested using Fitzpatrick Stadium, where greater distances could be maintained between voters and polling booths.

During the council meeting immediately following the workshop, the order for consolidation to three polling places had its first reading. A hearing and council discussion on the matter is scheduled for June 15. An order to move the Expo polling location to the Troubh arena was postponed to June 15.

Also at the council meeting, the city accepted $12 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding for Portland International Jetport to allow it to maintain operations while passenger volumes are down more than 90 percent from 2019.

Councilors also approved placing vacant city-owned property at 92 Rowe Ave. into the land bank. The land is largely unbuildable in the Shoreland zone and was recommended to the land bank for stormwater management purposes because of its proximity to Nason’s Brook, an impaired stream that the city is required to restore to state water quality standards.