Scarborough residents embrace early voting
SCARBOROUGH — Residents who have cast their ballots in the past few days are praising the state's Early Voting Pilot Program.
Scarborough is one of nine communities selected by the state to participate in the program that began Monday, Oct. 26, and will run through next Monday, Nov. 2. More than 300 Scarborough voters took advantage of the program in its first two days, Town Clerk Tody Justice said Wednesday.
Unlike absentee balloting, early voting allows residents to use the polling booths and cast ballots in the same manner as on Election Day. The ballots are inserted directly into the ballot box and will be tallied along with those cast on Nov. 3.
Results of a short survey given to early voters will be compiled by the secretary of state's office to determine the program's popularity with the public, with an eye to bringing it to the Legislature as a constitutional amendment possibly next year, Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said Monday.
If the reaction of Scarborough voters is any indication, the surveys may be overwhelmingly in favor of early voting becoming a permanent option.
"No lines, no waiting, quiet, convenient" are just some of the comments Justice said she has heard. But she said one of the biggest positives voters have expressed is they aren't accosted by candidates wanting to shake hands or petition gatherers seeking signatures – at least not when the pilot program began. But by 2 p.m. on Tuesday, a petitioner had shown up with a petition for the Oxford County casino.
"The requirements for Election Day apply," Flynn said. "If this is approved, I think that would have to be allowed."
Even if voters must still face petitioners and political figures, the early voting is a boon to town clerks.
"It makes our workload much easier," Justice said.
Instead of the seven-step handling process required for absentee ballots, the clerk's only duties after an early voter is signed in are to package and seal the ballots and secure them in a vault, she said. Though there are "a lot of checks and balances" the state implements, Justice said the early voting is "worth it."
The early voting program was first piloted in 2007 at polling places in Portland, Bangor and Readfield, Flynn said. While voters' response was positive, the push to get the two-thirds majority of the Legislature needed to send the constitutional amendment out to voters statewide split along party lines and the measure failed, she said. In a study the department conducted that year, more than a dozen states already had provisions for early voting.
"I think we certainly felt the pilot we did in 2007 really gave us enough data," Flynn said. "Voters loved it, clerks demonstrated they could have good security and process ballots more efficiently – it's secure and easy for voters and more efficient for towns. We felt we didn't need another pilot, but since the Legislature didn't want to go that route, we opened it up to more towns and more voters; this will give it another great trial."
Municipalities across Maine were given the opportunity to apply for the current pilot program in September. They had to demonstrate they had a space that met Americans with Disabilities Act requirements that could be dedicated to early voting for the week and had to be able to offer voting at all times their town halls are open, Flynn said. A dozen communities applied; three small towns were not accepted because their procedure is to count the ballots by hand, she said.
If a constitutional amendment is enacted to allow early voting, it would not be a mandate for every town, Flynn said, because some are not equipped with appropriate space, staffing and security. And since small communities don't process a lot of absentee ballots, it wouldn't be cost effective for them to hire the additional workers required, she said.
"We don't want to impose a process they can't manage and securely handle," Flynn said.
In Scarborough, early voting is taking place at Town Hall during regular business hours. For those unable to come to Town Hall, absentee ballots will still be available from the town clerk's office.
Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org.