Belle Bernheft approaches the Bates College registration table at the former Longley School in Lewiston in March 2019. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Following the presidential primary election in March, city officials issued an apology over long lines and parking congestion outside the former Longley School, which was the city’s lone polling location.

Officials at the time said the issues were “a perfect storm” caused by a state hockey tournament that coincided with an election where Mainers, for the first time in two decades, used a primary system for the presidential race.

But now, the city — and all municipalities — are faced with another unprecedented situation as they attempt to host an already-rescheduled state election during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The majority of city officials agreed with a plan this week to again consolidate Lewiston’s polling locations to Longley for the July 14 state election, as the City Clerk’s office considers safety measures for voters and poll workers.

The City Council on Tuesday held a public hearing on the consolidation proposal, but did not receive any public feedback. While most councilors were in favor, some said a single location might yield the same issues that occurred in March, but this time during a pandemic.

“We need to look at other options,” Councilor Safiya Khalid said. “We can’t have social distancing when the entire city is voting in one place.”

Councilor Alicia Rea said, “As we saw with the most recent presidential primary, there are just a lot of unknowns.”

City Clerk Kathy Montejo said this week that the Maine Secretary of State’s office has given its support to the polling consolidation, but that Lewiston is still waiting for state approval to waive a 90-day requirement for consolidating prior to an election.

Gov. Janet Mills previously changed the date of the state election from June 9 to July 14.

Montejo said the process requires a municipality to place a legal ad and hold a public hearing on consolidating 90 days before an election, but that many municipalities are still scrambling to plan for the logistical and safety challenges of holding an election during a pandemic.

In a memo to the council, Montejo said “preparing for and administering an election during a public health crisis has created many interesting challenges,” and that, “In order to contain and manage these changes, I am requesting the City Council consider consolidating the polling places into one central location at the Longley School.”

For Lewiston, two of its usual four polling locations are unavailable. The Lewiston Armory, where two wards normally vote, is being used as an emergency shelter. The Green Ladle culinary arts building is being used to prepare meals for families.

Montejo said Thursday that Lewiston voters are used to voting at Longley, and that three of the seven wards already vote there. She said adding a second location isn’t recommended, as “one stop avoids any confusion.”

She also estimates that finding the roughly 150 poll workers to staff all polling places would be difficult to achieve during the public health crisis.

Many municipalities, and voters, have been urging absentee voting in elections across the country.

“Irregardless of the issue of staffing, we don’t have the buildings we can utilize,” Montejo said during the meeting Tuesday.

Khalid suggested soliciting help from the public to volunteer at the polls to confront the lack of poll workers, which are normally paid a stipend.

Rea said there might be potential for more poll workers to be found in the community as “more people are looking for temporary positions they might be able to supplement their income with.”

All agreed that the city should urge voters to take advantage of absentee voting. Montejo said Mills’ previous executive order requires clerk’s offices to be open full hours on Election Day for absentee voting, which she said “in essence creates a second polling location.”

Khalid, however, said she’s concerned that the new Mainer population doesn’t necessarily take advantage of absentee voting due to language barriers.

“We shouldn’t depend on low turnout, when we should be giving all possibilities available for our residents to vote,” she said.

The council voted 5-2 to approve the polling consolidation, with Khalid and Rea voting against.

Ballot questions for the July state election are the Democratic and Republican primaries for U.S. Senate and U.S. House, as well as state and county offices, two state referendums and the city school budget validation.

Leading up to the election, Montejo said she is focusing on safety precautions for those planning to vote at the polls.

She said poll workers will be required to wear masks, and the Public Works department will likely build plexiglass shields to be used at Longley. Also, there will be no “I Voted” stickers.

Montejo said planning for November is much more daunting, given a presidential election and the likelihood of a CMP corridor referendum amid a pandemic.

“We’re frankly looking at July as a practice run for November,” she said.

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