ELLSWORTH — Like everything else, voting in the July 14 primary is going to look a lot different this year.
Expect a lot of physical distancing, only a certain number of people allowed in the building, sneeze guards, gloves, masks, face shields and fewer voting booths.
“Based on the number of people absentee voting, we’re hoping there won’t be a lot of people voting that day in the polling places,” said City Clerk Heidi Grindle. But with only half the residents or fewer allowed in each of the polling locations, there will undoubtedly be long lines.
“The number of polling places will not change,” said Grindle. “Our feeling was we should not consolidate because you’ll just force that many more people in the same spot.”
Grindle said she still has a relatively full staff roster. “We really have had very few people say they aren’t comfortable working. That’s been a true blessing.”
Physical distancing and washing booths down are going to be a challenge, Grindle said.
“We have to maintain a 6-foot distance around everything — I don’t even honestly know how we’re going to do it.”
The state is paying for personal protective equipment, said Grindle, but the city looks likely to be paying more in postage this year. Staff have already received requests for 417 absentee ballots, which Grindle said is up significantly compared to years past.
“The state is promoting the absentee and therefore promoting the election,” said Grindle. In a typical year, “The turnout would probably be much lower, probably 20 to 35 percent, but because they’re putting all this effort into advertising, we are probably getting a lot more.”
It costs 65 cents to mail a single ballot, she added, although the city is trying to consolidate mailing costs if possible — mailing two ballots (in separate envelopes inside a larger envelope) to a single household, if there are two absentee voters there.
Voters who do go the absentee route can mail their ballots back in or return them to the city in a locked box in the lobby of the Police Department that is bolted to the wall.
“You can’t reach in and grab them back,” Grindle noted.
The city is paying an additional roughly $10,000 to rent four voting machines that can process absentee ballots for the upcoming election as well as the elections in November. The state had planned to have a contract in place to reduce or eliminate that cost, but it’s been pushed off until next year, Grindle said.
“That isn’t a COVID-related expense, but we did have to rent machines again …There was some talk that municipalities may have to pay some of that rental agreement in the future,” she said, but it’s unclear what the cost will eventually be.
Grindle implored residents who would like to vote absentee to request and return their ballots early. Absentee ballots can be picked up through Election Day, a change from years past, when they had to be returned the Thursday before.
“That’s a hardship to place on us,” said Grindle, noting that her staff had been advocating for an entirely absentee process where voters could watch on TV “all day” as staff counted ballots.
“There’s no reason as far as it pertains to safety to do that,” said Grindle, of coming to get an absentee ballot on Election Day from a city clerk rather than going to a polling place. Lines are likely to be just as long, and it complicates things for clerks and staff, who will have to both distribute absentee ballots and be handling elections on the same day.
“If you can make it to the town office,” Grindle mused, “why can’t you make it to your polling place?” The decision by the state also channels those picking up absentee ballots into a single place, putting “a lot of extra pressure” on staff.
She stressed that while city staff will be doing everything possible to keep themselves and voters safe, “People need to protect themselves and not rely on us that day. If you’re worried about your health, either vote ahead of time or wear a mask and gloves and whatever makes you comfortable. I don’t know how we’re going to guarantee every place you come in this building is going to be 6 feet at every time.”
Grindle said staff will work with residents and be as accommodating as possible, but said, “I’m just hoping they understand if they’ve made that decision [to vote in person] they probably will encounter lines and we’re looking for them to be patient and we’ll try our best to comply. We do have their safety first and foremost in mind, as well as my staff’s safety.”
One change that Grindle said may be welcome by some voters? Petitioners and candidates will likely not be allowed inside the voting buildings, since they won’t be able to shake hands or petition, because they’d have to talk to voters too loudly standing 6 feet away.
“We’re really trying to be as accommodating as we can,” Grindle said.