Because of the ongoing spread of the coronavirus — and the steps being taken by Maine residents and government to slow that spread — Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday that it was “not going to be possible” to hold the state’s primary election in June. The governor said she was looking at July 14 as the date for rescheduled voting.
Maine would join a group of 16 states that have delayed primaries because of the virus, according to The New York Times.
In addition to rescheduling the primary, Mills said election officials were “taking every measure to minimize in-person contact for the purposes of handling that election and making sure people’s democratic right to vote, their very precious right to vote, is not impinged.”
That includes encouraging the use of absentee ballots “to the highest level possible” and minimizing in-person voting, the governor said in response to a reporter’s question.
This is a smart move and the additional time could avert a situation like the mess that unfolded in Wisconsin on Tuesday, where voters cast ballots in the Democratic presidential primary and state and local races.
The situation in Wisconsin should prompt Mills to quickly finalize details of the primary so that the Secretary of State’s Office and municipal clerks, who will still be responsible for sending out and collecting ballots, can plan for a changed election.
Moving to an all absentee voting system would also be prudent given the uncertainty about how long protective measures, such as stay-at-home orders and municipal office closures, will last. Mailing ballots to all registered voters is preferable, although costly and imprecise. Requiring voters to request absentee ballots is not a perfect system, but it is better than having voters head to the polls in person and brave the dangers of coronavirus and the confusion of changed polling places because of building closures.
We understand that using only absentee voting will make it harder for signature gathering efforts, but avoiding in-person contact at polling places is the highest priority when there is a reasonable alternative.
Mills can make these changes because the Legislature wisely gave her the power to do so before adjourning to abide by increasingly strict physical distancing requirements at the beginning of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Maine.
Although Mills outlined what she and election officials were thinking on Tuesday, she has yet to issue a formal policy on when the primary will be held and how voting will take place. The sooner she finalizes such a policy the better for voters, election officials, candidates and political parties. An early announcement of voting procedures will give voters time to understand the new system. It will give town and state election officials the needed time to prepare. And it will allow time for legal challenges, which are likely, to make their way through the courts, avoiding the last-minute legal scrambles that plagued Wisconsin’s primary.
In that state, some poll workers showed up in homemade hazmat suits and many voters carried wipes and sanitizer and wore masks. In Milwaukee, a Democratic stronghold, the number of polling places was reduced from 170 to just five, resulting in long lines to vote. In rural, more Republican-leaning areas, there were no lines and drive-through ballot drop off was permitted.
Wisconsin’s governor and other Democrats had tried to delay the election or switch to all mail-in ballots, but those efforts were blocked by the Republican-controlled Legislature and courts.
In a move that prompted charges of voter suppression, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday that absentee ballots mailed back to state election offices after Tuesday would not count. State officials had been scrambling to send out absentee ballots after thousands of voters requested them to avoid in-person voting as coronavirus spread in Wisconsin.
State election officials had yet to send out 12,000 absentee ballots as of Sunday night. A lower court had ruled that these ballots could still be counted, as long as they were returned by April 13.
The conservative majority of the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that only ballots postmarked by Tuesday could be counted.
By changing Maine’s 2020 primary early and proactively, Mills and other state and local officials can avoid disruptive last-minute challenges and other problems. The sooner details of the rescheduled primary are announced the better.