Rockland eyes additional ballot machines, flexible voting for pandemic-era elections

Mon, 05/18/2020 - 3:00pm

ROCKLAND — The Rockland City Clerk’s Office has seen an uptick in requests for absentee voting, and the Clerk’s Office doesn’t even have the ballots yet, according to Rockland City Clerk Stuart Sylvester, during the May 13 City budget meeting. 

Sylvester told Council that a Primary Election year would typically draw about 200 absentee requests in Rockland. So far this year, with Maine election officials being told to proceed as normal despite constant questions surrounding social distancing, 100 residents have already asked for absentee paperwork. 

Ahead of this year’s July 14 and November 3 elections, the Clerk’s Office has added an additional line-item to their fiscal year 2021 budget wish list.

In past election years, lines inside the Flanagan Center (aka Rockland Rec Center) have grown long. Yet the length and the backup weren’t always from people waiting to vote. Instead, many backups formed as a result of residents waiting to push completed ballots into the one State-issued machine and the other rented machine used for local issues.

To keep residents moving, the City is considering renting two additional machines at a cost of $2,500.

“Some of the stuff I’ve heard leads me to believe we should be fairly flexible with rental, as you said, and getting a couple of extra rents,” said Mayor Lisa Westkaemper. “We’re going to try to do social distancing as much as possible. If we do in-person, making it quick so people are not standing in line, waiting to get through the process, etc.”

Westkaemper asked, however, if the machines would prove unnecessary should the Maine Secretary of State’s Office choose to follow a by-mail or by write-in election only. 

In response, Sylvester said that the location of the voting resident won’t make a difference to machine usage. 

“The ballots would still be run through the machine, whether they’re mail-in vote ballots or people who vote in person,” he said. “Having the two additional machines will just simply speed up that process because we could have four people running ballots, rather than two.”

A mail-in election could alter how soon election results are totaled and made public, according to Westkaemper. Mail-ins would require a Post Mark date, assumed to be Election Day itself. Election workers would therefore be opening and processing ballots for an extended duration following the deadline, potentially delaying results for several days. 

“There’s a lot of unknowns, but I think putting in a little extra money in there for the possibility of rental of other machines is a wise decision in this point in time,” said Westkaemper.

For those Rockland residents concerned about the health and safety of Election Day in-person voting, the flexibility of absentee has become even more flexible, according to Sylvester. Whereas previous years ceased accepting write-in ballots on the Thursday prior to Election Day, voters can now cast their choices up until 8 p.m. on Election Day.  

The Secretary of State’s Office is “not mandating all mail-in balloting,” he said. “But they are strongly suggesting [that] if people feel uncomfortable, to simply request an absentee ballot, vote at their leisure, and return it to the Clerk’s Office.”