Portland Democrats and others have come out against a proposal by the city clerk to reduce the number of polling places 11 to three for the July 14 primary elections because of a shortage of election workers.
City Clerk Katherine Jones proposed consolidation because many of the election workers needed to run all 11 locations are in a high-risk class for COVID-19 and have chosen not to work this election. She said public-health guidelines advise election workers in the high-risk categories to stay home.
According to data compiled by the US. Election Commission, more than 70 percent of Portland’s 211 election workers in 2018 (150 workers) were 61 or older, an age group that is particularly vulnerable to the disease.
“The Portland Dems decidedly oppose this proposal,” Simon Thompson, chair of the Portland Democratic City Committee, said in a June 5 email. The committee started a petition which had 70 signatures as of noon of June 9, and called on residents – particularly young people in good health – to sign up to work at the polls.
In an open letter, Portland Democratic City Committee, People First Portland, Fair Elections Portland, Portland Green Party, Progressive Portland, and the Maine State Building & Construction Trades Council said that while they understand recruiting poll workers will be challenging, reducing polling locations to three is “entirely unacceptable.”
“(It) will lead to long lines, increased burdens for voters with accessibility challenges, disenfranchising many voters while increasing rather than decreasing health risks due to substantially greater numbers of voters per site,” the letter said.
Anna Kellar, executive director of the League of Women Voters and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said while they understand that some consolidation may be necessary due to the pandemic, consolidating polling places is not a decision to take lightly.
“We’ve seen in other cities this spring that when polling places close, lines increase, the risk of COVID-19 transmission is higher, and some voters are deterred from participating,” Kellar said in an email June 5. “The impact of poll closures is often the most severe on communities of color (who are already disproportionately impacted by COVID-19). Going from 11 polling places to three would almost certainly create a barrier to some voters being able to participate in the July election.”
Kellar said the League of Women Voters wants city officials to take extra measures to promote absentee voting, to reduce the demand for in-person polling places, and to advertise for more election workers.
“For people willing to bear the risk, being a poll worker is an essential service citizens can provide to their community,” Kellar wrote.
The league also called on voters who might need to register to vote or change their registration status to do so in person or by mail ahead of Election Day.
During the June 1 City Council workshop where she proposed the consolidation, Jones said training new election workers would be difficult while she is preparing for the election and getting her office up and running after the reopening of City Hall.
“The state law and guidelines around elections are complicated,” she said. Election wardens need several years of experience before taking on that role and three told her they would not be able to work July 14.
“Election clerks need to have knowledge around checking in voters, which ballots they get – this particular election has three party ballots for each legislative and senate district – plus a referendum for the state and two for the city to give to the voters. It can be very confusing to new election workers and is even confusing for our seasonal workers on knowing which ballot to give to each voter.
“Election clerks also need to know when to send a voter to the deputy registrar,” she continued, “and what ballot to give to a 17-year-old, and who can challenge a voter.”
She also said that some polling locations would not accommodate physical distancing requirements.
City councilors expressed concerns about the proposal during the workshop, and asked Jones to look for ways to increase the number of polling locations in her consolidation plan.
Mayor Kate Snyder on June 6 said “the issue at hand is that we typically have 11 polling places, and I think there’s agreement that that number of places is really responsive and good for getting as many people out to vote as possible. But we are in the throes of a pandemic and there are challenges that are standing in our way in terms of poll workers and volunteers.”
Councilor Spencer Thibodeau urged people who would like to get involved to contact the clerk’s office.
Jones’ proposal will have a council public hearing Monday, June 15.