Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills said on Tuesday that the coronavirus will likely force the state to delay the congressional and legislative primaries that were scheduled for June 9 while eyeing July 14 as her preferred date for a rescheduled election.
The abrupt announcement from the Democratic governor came in response to a reporter’s question at a news conference on Tuesday. It was not coordinated with Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who said afterward that he would prefer an all-absentee ballot election.
Mills said it was “not going to be possible” to hold the election in June in accordance with social distancing requirements designed to stop the spread of the virus. She has unilateral power to move the June election or change it by expanding absentee voting under a coronavirus response bill passed by the Maine Legislature last month.
She would have to issue a new executive order to enshrine changes to the nominating races for congressional and legislative seats, highlighted by a Democratic U.S. Senate primary and the Republican nominating race in the 2nd Congressional District. Local elections will also be held.
The governor told reporters the state would take steps to “minimize in-person contact” while allowing absentee voting “to the highest level possible.” Later, Mills noted that Maine could use federal stimulus money earmarked for voting to buy plexiglass shields for some polling places. Some cities and towns have seen places typically used for polling close due to the virus.
“We’ll take these each step at a time, but for now we’re anticipating holding the election on July 14 instead of June 9,” Mills said.
Earlier on Tuesday, a Dunlap spokesperson said the office was in “continuing discussions” with Mills’ office on the matter. He was surprised by the announcement on Tuesday afternoon and said his office had given her office dates in July to consider for a rescheduled election.
Dunlap, also a Democrat, said he would prefer an all-absentee ballot election, which would require proactive outreach up to or including mailing ballot requests to all voters and adjusting other deadlines under Maine law. He said it would be the easiest way to administer the election and remove the necessity to secure safe polling places.
He noted, however, that it looked like Mills was planning to allow some in-person voting. Dunlap said that was a viable option, though her reference to plexiglass shields “makes me scratch my head” and could put his office in the difficult position of coordinating the delivery of protective equipment to cities and towns.
“It adds a degree of difficulty that it’s not something I would recommend,” he said. “When you’re dealing with a strange situation, you’re looking for ways to make things simpler, not harder.”
The governor’s comments came a day after several advocacy groups released a list of recommendations, calling on the state to allow online voter registration and make it easier for residents to vote absentee due to the coronavirus. Maine would join a group of 15 states that have delayed primaries because of the virus, according to The New York Times.
Candidates in the elections that were slated for June either applauded or shrugged at the change on Tuesday. Former state Rep. Dale Crafts and former state Sen. Eric Brakey, who are running in the 2nd District primary, said it would not change their campaigns.
House Speaker Sara Gideon, one of the Democrats competing in the U.S. Senate primary, said in a statement that it was important that Mainers “be able to exercise their right to vote safely.” Lobbyist Betsy Sweet, who is also running in that primary, applauded Mills’ “swift action.”
Seth Nelson, a spokesperson for the Maine Democratic Party, said in a statement the party supported Mills’ goals of expanding mail-in ballots while reducing in-person voting. He added that the party would “look forward to clarity on how those goals will be achieved.”
Watch: Nirav Shah on risk