AUBURN — The city will utilize three polling locations for the November presidential election, rebuffing a proposal from city staff to consolidate voting to Norway Savings Bank Arena.

But, following a lengthy debate Monday, the city has not yet decided which three locations it will use. The City Council voted 4-3 to use three polling locations, to be determined Aug. 17.

Due to COVID-19, staff had pitched the dual-surface arena as the only viable location to host all five wards and have suitable parking, stating it would eliminate the need to use school locations and ease concerns over finding adequate numbers of poll workers.

However, the majority of the council disagreed with the proposal, arguing the city should maintain as many physical polling locations as possible for the presidential election, while promoting absentee ballots and early voting.

Staff said the decision Monday to use three polling places takes the arena out of consideration for use in November because the cost of the operation would not be worth only hosting one or two wards. The arena was used, along with Auburn Hall, during the primary on July 14.

Officials had said the normal school polling locations in gymnasiums and other larger areas will likely be occupied for educational purposes this fall due to social distancing measures, prompting the call for consolidating.

Many municipalities have considered consolidating polls given difficulties in finding election staff and the large increase in absentee voting — both due to the pandemic.

During the meeting, state Sen. Ned Claxton of Auburn said other cities, including Portland, had been able to get the word out to the community regarding a need for poll workers, adding it is “not by itself a reason not to maintain as many polling sites as we can.”

“I think we should have as many as possible, and as close as possible to where they were before,” he said.

It was clear Monday that officials didn’t see an easy solution. Any other proposed polling location — Hilton Garden Inn, Central Maine Community College, West Auburn Baptist Church, the Rollerdrome, the Boys and Girls Club, and more — came with its own set of concerns, mostly centered on parking and accessibility.

Even more city-backed options such as Auburn Hall and the new Senior Community Center received concerns.

City Manager Phil Crowell said the city has never used Auburn Hall for more than one ward, and that many seniors don’t like using the parking garage.

He said using the arena would allow the city to control its use in the future, allowing it to be a consistent location. The future use of other locations can’t be guaranteed, he said.

City Clerk Sue Clements-Dallaire said the city did not receive any complaints regarding the primary election.

Councilor Katie Boss said the city should have the “highest number of locations as we can.”

“Just because we didn’t hear anything doesn’t mean there aren’t barriers and challenges,” she said, adding that three locations will still be a reduction from previous elections.

During the last three presidential elections, Auburn saw a 72% turnout. In 2016, 27% voted absentee. During the primary, about 2,500 of 4,000 votes cast were absentee.

Councilor Leroy Walker said his ward, in New Auburn, has a large elderly population. He said he’s concerned for travel, parking and long lines.

“We have to take care of the elderly people who don’t want to travel all across the city to vote somewhere they’ve never had to vote,” he said.

Councilors pushed staff to make sure that when the locations are decided later this month, that there is a large push to communicate the details with residents.

“Whatever changes happen, we need to make sure people know what’s going on. That has to be a piece of this,” Councilor Holly Lasagna said.

In order for a municipality to consolidate polling locations, it must conduct a public hearing 90 days before the election. That cutoff for Auburn is Aug. 5. Clements-Dallaire said the council could vote on the number of polling locations with the physical locations “yet-to-be-determined.”

Regarding the concern over finding adequate staff, she told councilors Monday, “In normal circumstances, I struggle to line up poll workers.”

Councilor Brian Carrier, voting against the three-location plan, said going with three locations essentially “gives up” the location with the most parking: the arena.

“If people see a full parking lot, they might bypass it,” he said.

Councilors Boss, Walker, MacLeod and Lasagna voted in favor of the three-location plan.

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