AUBURN — The City Clerk’s office is planning to consolidate Auburn’s five polling locations to two for the July 14 election, following a trend across Maine as municipalities face staff shortages and concerns over COVID-19.

The City Council will hold a public hearing and vote Monday on a plan to use Auburn Hall and the Norway Savings Bank Arena for the state referendum and primary election.

The arena at 985 Turner St. has never been used for polling before.

City Clerk Sue Clements-Dallaire said the office is seeing a number of trends, including a “drastic increase” in voters requesting absentee ballots, as well as challenges in finding election workers.

Most of the city’s returning election workers are retired and between the ages of 65-80, which puts them in a higher risk category. Many are not comfortable working at this time, she said.

“Under normal circumstances, it’s difficult to adequately line up staff for each of the five polling places and due to the pandemic, it has been even more of a challenge,” she said.

As of Thursday, the city had issued roughly 1,500 absentee ballots, which is about 10% of voters, she said.

During the 2018 primary and municipal referendum election, the city saw a 25% turnout, with 551 absentee ballots.

The clerk’s office has also been short-staffed.

The clerk’s recommendation is to have Wards 1, 2 and 3 vote at Norway Savings Bank Arena, with Wards 4 and 5 voting at Auburn Hall.

There are about 6,000 active registered voters in Wards 4 and 5 combined, and 9,800 in Wards 1, 2 and 3 combined.

The City Council briefly discussed the recommendation this week, with several people asking about the city’s traditional polling locations. Some were concerned that the arena has never been used as a polling location before.

Councilor Belinda Gerry questioned why the new Senior Community Center wasn’t considered, but Clements-Dallaire said parking is a major factor at any location.

“Consolidating polling places for this election would allow for appropriate staffing and more efficient management of the polls,” she said. “It would also ease the burden off schools that are used as polling places.”

In Lewiston, the City Council approved a similar consolidation this week. The election will be held at just one location, the former Longley School, where three wards already vote.

A few city officials were wary of the idea, picturing long lines where voters could struggle to practice social distancing.

However, City Clerk Kathy Montejo said the city is encouraging absentee voting, and that a single location will make it easier for election staff to have safety measures in place.

She also said adding a second location isn’t recommended, stating “one stop avoids any confusion.”

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