Portland issues last call for workers to keep polling places open

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Portland is making a last-ditch effort to attract enough workers to keep all of the city’s 11 polling stations open on July 14.

City councilors on Monday night postponed a request to consolidate polling places for the upcoming primary elections. The council was initially asked to reduce the number of stations to three, but after public pushback planned to adopt a compromise Monday on six, including one on Peaks Island.

City Clerk Kathy Jones proposed the consolidation because most polling place workers are elderly and at risk for COVID-19. On Monday, she said she would need 126 workers to keep all 11 stations open, and had only 62. She said these workers must be trained, and have their paperwork in, by next week to be able to work on July 14.

She said 62 workers aren’t enough to fully operate even five polling places.

“One of my biggest concerns, besides the lack of workers and the safety of election clerks, is the number of ballots we pass out to voters,” Jones said, because of the different party forms required. She said it might seem like a simple issue, but with such a short turnaround time to train people she had “great concerns of voters getting the wrong ballots.”

Following a public hearing where several people spoke against consolidation, and council discussion, Jones said her office could wait another week.

State Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, told councilors closing polling stations would only put voters at a greater health risk during the pandemic, since they would likely be crammed into fewer places. He also said that since the primaries have already been pushed from June into July, voters will be confused enough without being told their usual polling place might be closed.

Chipman also said consolidation could suppress voters who are handicapped or disabled and don’t have the ability to travel far from their homes.

“Keeping this is absolutely critical,” he said.

Representatives from Fair Elections Portland and the Portland Democratic City Committee also spoke against consolidation. Al Cleveland, of Fair Elections Portland, said having just six stations in a city of 67,000 people “is threatening the ability of the people’s right to vote.”

Councilors initially seemed to be leaning toward supporting the plan, with several admitting it wasn’t perfect, but acknowledging the clerk’s hands were tied given the lack of workers who signed up.

Councilor Tae Chong said while every councilor wants to “preserve democracy,” these were “extraordinary times.”

Councilor Justin Costa proposed waiting a week to make a final push for workers. Although the workers are routinely called “volunteers,” they are actually paid. Jones said they don’t have to be city residents, but there does have to be a 2-1 ratio of registered Democrats to registered Republicans, reflecting voter registration in the city.

“None of us want to do this at all,” Costa said. “My hope is people will continue to sign up and volunteer in the next day or two in a way that is material and will let us pursue more options.”

Costa, in remarks later echoed by Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, also chided the representatives of organizations who spoke critically of the consolidation proposal. He said it was “difficult to square” the low number of workers with the vocal opposition the city was hearing to closing stations. If these groups want to ensure all 11 stations remain open, he said, they should help recruit workers.

Thibodeau also said he had “zero patience” for groups blasting the city but not volunteering to help on Election Day. 

Councilor Belinda Ray pointed out the information about the worker shortage wasn’t easy to discover at first, with a sign-up link buried at the bottom of the clerk’s section of the city website. The city has since moved it to a push notification at the top of the home page.  

Councilors voted unanimously to postpone a decision until Monday, June 22, when they will hold a special vote following a workshop on the June 1 protest in the Old Port where police clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters.

Council OKs school budget, delays vote on facial recognition tech

Portland City Councilors on Monday night again postponed a decision on whether to prohibit the use of facial recognition technology by the city.

The council also approved the $120 million school budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which now requires passage in a July 14 voter referendum.

The action on facial recognition technology was proposed by Councilor Pious Ali. His amendment – a revised version of a proposal he first made last year – would prohibit its use by city officials and employees, including the Police Department.

Ali agreed to postpone the discussion until July 13 to give councilors more time to study the update. A few indicated they were more supportive of this version, and Councilor Belinda Ray said it addresses concerns she had previously.

“I’m excited to look at this further and get corporation council review,” she said.

Increasing attention is being paid around the country to the pros and cons of facial recognition technology following protests after the killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis. Companies like Amazon have said they will not sell their facial recognition technology to police departments.

School budget

The nearly $120 million School Department budget calls for no increase on the school side of the tax rate for 2020-2021.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana told the council his original budget proposal was $122.3 million, which would have been a 3 percent increase in the school portion of the tax rate. He said this included a proposal to look at reconfiguring the city’s elementary schools.

But that part of the plan was pulled back in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of the impacts, he said, include removing world language from the fourth and fifth grades. There were also reductions in staff supply requests, athletic programming, and officials are still working to identify $400,000 in additional reductions.

Overall, the $119.9 million budget is a 2 percent increase over the current school budget, but Botana emphasized it will not add to the tax rate.

— Colin Ellis