A ballot drop box installed in late June sits at the Park Street entrance to Lewiston City Hall. Submitted photo

LEWISTON — When city staff in Lewiston ordered a ballot drop box this spring, they had no idea how in-demand they would become in the weeks and months that followed.

According to City Clerk Kathy Montejo, it was ordered in March from one of only two companies offering them at the time, but it didn’t arrive until late June, giving the city about four days of official use prior to the July 14 primary.

Now, Montejo said, the drop boxes are in high demand due to a convergence of factors heading into an expected high-turnout election.

With Lewiston’s drop box ready, Auburn is now joining the growing list of municipalities employing the use of absentee ballot drop boxes ahead of the November presidential election, as concerns over COVID-19 have combined with a U.S. Postal Service in disarray.

Meanwhile, requests for absentee ballots are already unprecedented in both cities, with each having received more than 1,000.

Montejo said state law began allowing ballot drop boxes about two years ago, with only a few towns initially taking advantage of the change.

But, she said given the impact from the pandemic on voting, Lewiston decided to place an order. Since then, the upheaval at the Postal Service has even more municipalities considering drop boxes, with voters concerned for lost or late ballots.

“At the time, it wasn’t really a thing,” Montejo said, referring to when the city placed its order. “But now it’s nationwide.”

Montejo said feedback from voters using the drop box for the primary election was overwhelmingly positive. They told her they used it due to convenience and security — voters can return a ballot any time, and “don’t have to worry about it getting lost in the mail system,” she said.

The drop box, sitting just outside City Hall on Park Street, can hold between 750 and 1,000 ballots, and will be checked multiple times a day once ballots are distributed. The box is cemented into the ground, is locked and is monitored by a security camera. It cost the city about $2,000, but the city is eligible for reimbursement by the state through the coronavirus relief bill.

Montejo said that due to Postal Service concerns, the clerk’s office is expecting “much heavier use” of the drop box for absentee ballots. They’re also expecting an even bigger jump in early voting at City Hall.

She said anyone who requests a ballot be mailed to them is relying on the Postal Service for half the voting process, while using the drop box to ensure it’s delivered in a timely manner.

“Voters who want to avoid any interaction (with mail) can vote in person,” she said.

The clerk’s office typically sets up voting booths in the Council Chamber at City Hall for early voting, but Montejo said they will be limited this year due to social distancing requirements. In response, they will offer extended hours, she said.

For now, the city’s drop box is covered while not in use, but Montejo said it will be uncovered as soon as ballots become available 30 days before the election.

In Auburn, City Clerk Sue Clements-Dallaire said her office ordered a ballot box roughly nine weeks ago, and is “hoping it will be in soon.”

She said once it comes in, it will be placed somewhere outside Auburn Hall “in a location where voters can easily drop off their ballots,” possibly just outside of the parking garage. Like Lewiston, it can hold between 750 and 1,000 ballots and clerk staff will check it at least a few times a day.

Both cities have been inundated with ballot requests since the Aug. 3 start date.

According to Montejo, “our phones starting ringing off the hook” on the Monday ballot requests were allowed, and has seen hundreds more since the state’s online portal went live Monday.

As of Thursday, Lewiston had received 1,096 ballot requests. Auburn has fielded more than 1,000 as well.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented and record-setting for such a short period of time,” Montejo said, adding that in just the first 48 hours after the online system went live, the city hit 1,000.

Clements-Dallaire said that at this time in 2016, Auburn had about 40 requests.

Because voters are requesting so early, however, Montejo is concerned some could forget and then submit duplicate requests, which are time consuming for her staff.

She said while it’s a positive sign that people are getting requests in early, ballots haven’t even been printed yet, and will likely not reach voters until early October.

“In the age of Amazon, if it’s not there in a week I’m concerned,” she said. “I’ve been telling people don’t even look for your ballot until the beginning of October.”

The presidential election is Tuesday, Nov. 3.


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