Maine may struggle to claim its share of $400 million in federal funding designated to help states conduct elections safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

The federal money, included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, would help pay for such measures as installing barriers in polling places, training poll workers and covering the costs of casting ballots by mail.

But because the law requires states to provide a 20 percent match for the federal funds, Maine may not be able to access the money, according to Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who oversees elections.

With the Legislature currently adjourned, the state has no way to appropriate the $658,000 needed to match the $3.2 million in federal funds available to Maine.

“Things we could use the extra revenue for could include postage for extra absentee ballots, space costs for relocated polling stations, Plexiglass and other spacing barriers for social distancing, to pay for extra or replacement poll workers, and a few other things,” Dunlap said in a written statement.

He said Maine’s congressional delegation is trying to amend the CARES act to help make the funding more readily available.

“We are hoping they will change,” Dunlap said. “The delegation has been very responsive to the whole match issue, which even if the Legislature weren’t out of town, with what the budget projections are showing, a $658,000 match feels like a pretty heavy lift right now.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is among those who have asked congressional leaders to change the law to make the funding available without an up-front match.

“Given the unprecedented strain the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on state budgets, the match requirement could mean that several states are unable to take advantage of new election funding at the very moment it is most needed,” Collins said in a written statement. “In this national crisis, we should not ask states to choose between providing critical services and safeguarding our democracy.”

Collins has also been raising concerns about ballot and polling place security in light of a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report that confirmed the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections in an effort to aid President Trump’s campaign.

State governments around the country have passed emergency legislation on elections during the COVID-19 pandemic. At least 20 states have enacted laws changing elections or have seen governors issue emergency orders to that effect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The changes range from requiring mail-in only balloting to delaying elections.

Earlier this month Maine Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order postponing Maine’s June primary to July 14.

That delay would, among other things, allow Maine voters more time to request and cast absentee ballots, while giving local election officials more time to prepare and plan for polling place safety, Mills said at the time.

Town and city clerks in Maine are wrestling with logistical details designed to make polling places safer during the pandemic.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said Monday a top concern for clerks is whether they will have enough polling place workers, usually local volunteers who are paid a small amount by municipalities.

Montejo, a former president of the Maine Town and City Clerks Association, which includes nearly all of Maine’s 500 or so organized municipalities, said many of those workers are retirees who may have underlying health issues that make them more vulnerable to the virus.

She said at least one clerk in Sagadahoc County has already heard that none of her regular volunteers is willing to work a municipal election in June or the new statewide primary in July.

“So, this is the number one concern,” said Montejo, “Will we have enough polling place workers?”

She said Lewiston has asked Gov. Janet Mills and Dunlap for permission to consolidate the city’s seven polling places into one. Montejo said extra funding could be used to buy plexiglass barriers, sanitize voting booths and pens and provide masks, shields or other protective equipment for poll workers. Maine clerks will also soon start a campaign to promote absentee voting, she said.

“We are really hoping to have a large percentage of voters mail it in this time,” she said.

Montejo said some municipalities must new polling places because the ones they use now do not have enough space for adequate social distancing. At the same time, some cities, including Lewiston, Bangor and Portland, are using some of their largest gathering spaces for pandemic-related tasks. In Lewiston, the city’s armory building has been converted to a temporary homeless shelter, while Bangor and Portland have set aside their respective civic centers for use as overflow hospitals should the virus surge in Maine.

“Whether those facilities could become available in July or not is still an unknown,” Montejo said.

 


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