Clerks: New Absentee Voting Law is a Strain

(from Maine Townsman, August/September 2010)
By Liz Chapman Mockler

Maine town and city clerks say they will ask the Legislature to give voters a chance to amend the Constitution to allow for early voting. The step is needed, they said, because a still-new law permitting citizens to vote by absentee ballot without reason has been so successful it strained the state’s election system.

“I think people are generally shocked to find out how much it really entails and the endurance that’s involved with an election,” said Patti Dubois, City Clerk in Bangor.

Some of Dubois’ peers also say the state must address the problems caused by a “huge” up-tick in absentee ballots, which can only be opened and processed on the Monday before a Tuesday election.

Ruth Lyons

“Where we were doing 100 before a presidential election, we could be doing 2,000 (now) – and it takes tremendous manpower,” said Topsham Town Clerk Ruth Lyons.

In addition to the increased cost of elections because of absentee voting, the workload also has grown.

“It’s not that I’m afraid to work, and I don’t think any clerk is across the state,” Dubois said, “but it’s a fact that we are stressing the system to the point where someone’s going to make a major mistake and it’s really going to affect the outcome.

“Are we going to be a Florida?” Dubois asked, referring to problems in the state during the 2000 presidential election. “Something has to give before something bad happens.”

South Portland City Clerk Susan Mooney agreed that “people love” absentee voting.

“It’s a very popular part of an election now and I’m thrilled we can offer that to the public,” said Mooney, president of the Maine Town and City Clerks Association. “But to have that last period of time to be able to prepare effectively for an election would be wonderful.”

The three veteran clerks recently agreed to answer election-related questions for the Townsman. Below are their answers in edited form; more of the clerks’ commentary is available on the Maine Municipal Association’s website (www.memun.org) as an audio feed.

Q: What is the most significant change in Maine election laws in recent history?

Dubois: The ability (to) vote by absentee ballot without a reason. We’ve shifted now to (having) almost 50 percent of votes cast before Election Day. It’s certainly a plus for the voters; it allows them the convenience to vote basically any time.

Lyons: The most significant change is not to have a reason for an absentee ballot. I think it’s wonderful for the voter, but I think it has impacted the clerks and registrars in every town simply because people will use it because it’s easy and it’s convenient… It was designed to help people that were shut-in, people that were handicapped … The Secretary of State’s office is very aware of (the problem) and they are seeking changes; they’ve sought a lot of input from us.

Mooney: The creation of the centralized voter system (that) allowed the state to have one database of all registered voters … rather than each community having their own individual databases where we would have no way of knowing if someone was registered in more than one community. It was a huge improvement for … reporting and tracking election information.Patti Dubois

Q: If you could make one change to the state’s election laws, what would it be and why?

Lyons: To let us do early (voting) … Let the voter come in and deposit their (absentee) ballot in the machine. I’m a huge promoter of that. And then there’s no question (for the voter) that the ballot was deposited.

Mooney: A cutoff for absentee voting, even if it was just at noontime on Monday before an election. I would open up on a Saturday and have us operate the whole Saturday before an election to do absentee voting. We can have 600 to 700 people come in and absentee vote the day before the election. It’s huge.

Dubois: Have a cutoff for absentee voting and also registrations – say, the day before the election because … (there are) other functions taking place simultaneous with the election. I think that people who know they have the ability to register on Election Day probably would be disenfranchised if there was no Election Day registration, (but) I’m also mindful of the fact that the system is stretched almost to the breaking point across the state.

Q: What is the most important job in preparing for an election or town meeting?

Mooney: Testing of the equipment. We have to test absentee ballots through each of the machines from each of the polling places. Then, we have to run some of the regular ballots through. We have to make sure the machines are working efficiently.

Dubois: I have a timeline that I prepare before each election. It’s a five-page check-off of things I need to do and things that are timely and it’s kind of in sequential order, starting at four or five months out and moving to a month out. That’s what allows me to prepare for each election and make sure I don’t miss a really critical piece … that could put into question the entire election.

Lyons: Setting up my timetable when things have to go to public hearing, when the board has to (finish the budget), when the warrant has to be finished, when the warrant has to be printed, when everything has to be posted. Those are my priorities.

Q: Has technology affected how elections are held in Maine?

Dubois: Yes. (It has) enhanced the election process. The state has implemented a statewide voter registration database and that allows us to track absentee ballots. It allows for protection against voter fraud so if someone comes in and has requested and voted in absentee ballot here in Bangor, and then goes to Hermon and tries to register, (the system) will flag that they’ve already voted a ballot in Bangor.

Lyons: Yes. I think the state has been very good in (updating) technology. I think most of us, if not all of us, embrace technology in moving forward.

Mooney: Technology has had a huge impact. I can’t even envision what it was like before electronic voting machines. Just being able to zip (ballots) through the machine (is) phenomenal; to be able to instantly upload your election results on your website. It’s huge just to be able to get that information out.Susan Mooney

Q: How do you choose election workers that you use and how do you determine how many you need for any given election?

Mooney: I have a spreadsheet on voter turnout. You can pretty much (estimate turnout) and we staff accordingly.

Dubois: I try to use the people who have been around (a long time). In 2008, we actually advertised for more people because I knew I was going to need more workers. I think the key to running a successful election is having adequate staffing … (or) it’s just not going to work.

Lyons: I give the (political) parties a list of my election workers at every caucus every two years and if they want to add to it, they can. So I try to use all the people. I have the ones I rely on all the time because they’re well-trained.

Q: What is the funniest thing you’ve seen on election day?

Dubois: (During) the presidential election year in ‘08, we had hired on so many new workers that a lot of the existing workers hadn’t met some the new people. This one gentleman came and he said to the (election) warden, “I’m here to work the election,” so she sat him down in the place where the poll watcher was supposed to sit. So he sat there the whole day and left and she never used him because she thought he was a poll watcher instead of an election worker. The warden said, “He sat there all day and never said a word.”

Lyons: It’s kind of funny and it’s kind of irritating: A young man came in with an absentee ballot, five minutes to 8 (p.m.), before we were going to close and he said, “I want to vote in person.” I said, “Then you have to give me that ballot.” (He said): “‘I don’t want to give you that ballot. I studied for two weeks on how to fill out the absentee ballot.” So finally I said to him, “Look, you either get in there and vote and give me that ballot or you leave.” And, he chose to go in (and vote) and he gave me the ballot.

Mooney: Deputy Clerk Jennifer Scholz will usually go out to our local nursing home and do absentee voting with the residents and (once) she ended up sitting down with an elderly lady (who) leaned over and said “I’m naked under my kimono,” and Jennifer never missed a beat. She just reached over, patted her hand and she said, “That’s OK, hon. You can still vote.”

Liz Chapman Mockler is a freelance writer and media advisor from Augusta, lizmockler@hotmail.com