Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin reads the election results to the press and candidates waiting at the Cross Insurance Center on July 14, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin used to love Election Day. She does not look forward to it quite as much anymore.

When voting machines went offline at the Cross Insurance Center in 2018, the city reverted to old-fashioned ballot boxes for a short period of time. Someone came up to her saying they heard workers were shredding ballots.

Maine elections are administered by city and town clerks, who independently count votes before sending them to be certified by the secretary of state’s office. Voter fraud is extremely rare, here and nationally. In recent Maine elections, it has only been charged under isolated circumstances.

“I enjoy the process of the election,” she said. “I enjoy all that goes into it but not that outside chatter, and that’s what’s going to burn clerks out.”

Disinformation on elections is hitting the local officials who are charged with administering them particularly hard. Many clerks and deputies have signed up for de-escalation training being offered by the state. In 2020, one clerk got a death threat. One faced what she called a “mob” of 40 people and another had a man ask her what she would do if he incited a crowd.

The landscape has changed since 2020, marked by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election and widespread voter fraud. In a national survey last year from the Brennan Center for Justice, 78 percent of local election officials said their jobs had been made harder by social media. More than half said it made their jobs more dangerous.

Maine runs elections in a decentralized fashion with paper ballots counted by local clerks. Because of that, officials generally hold the Maine system up as a model of security. The state has permissive voting laws expanded on recently by the Democratic-led Legislature.

Former Gov. Paul LePage has pushed for a voter-identification law in his race with Gov. Janet Mills after repeating Trump’s claims at the federal level after the 2020 election. The Republican said last month that while elections in small towns are secure because clerks know voters, “you’ve got to be a little more careful” in cities. It led Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, to say Maine’s laws “protect against fraud” and to “suggest otherwise is a lie.”

Maine clerks have cited election-related stress often over the last two years, including when they advocated for a bill this year before the Legislature that aimed to make it a felony to harass or intimidate an election official. Clerks referenced a death threat to one unnamed colleague who later identified themselves as Waterville’s clerk in congressional testimony.

In nearby Rome, a town of just more than 1,100 people in the Belgrade Lakes region, the clerk said she faced down a group of 40 people during a 2021 municipal election. One accused her of running an illegal election and denigrated a selectman.

During the 2020 presidential election, the Biddeford clerk testified a man confronted her twice because he was angry about a nonpartisan group assisting voters who did not speak English. The second time, the man found a police officer and asked the clerk what she would do if he incited a crowd. She said it would become an issue for the officer then.

The measure was passed unanimously but watered down to instead create a misdemeanor specific to election officials and require Bellows’ office to monitor threats and provide de-escalation training to local officials. About 30 clerks and deputies have signed up for an Oct. 3 session, Emily Cook, a Bellows spokesperson, said.

Even in places with no dramatic stories, clerks say elections have changed. Kennebunk Town Clerk Merton Brown, who began his career as Bethel’s clerk in 1975, said voters are more skeptical and want things explained in more detail. He does not mind.

“I’m an old-school town clerk that feels that the citizens are paying my salary and I owe a lot to them,” he said.

The strife comes during a labor shortage that is also hitting local government, which has been struggling in recent years with a core part of the workforce reaching retirement age. Approximately 20 cities and towns have listings for clerks or deputy clerks on the Maine Municipal Association’s job board.

That wider situation has made some cities change their operations. Biddeford has switched to a four-day work week with extended service two days per week after finding out bumping staff pay to account for inflation would cost $3.75 million, said City Manager James Bennett. Employees work 36 hours but are paid for 40. Morale has improved, Bennett said.

The city is looking for a new clerk after the current one announced plans to retire early, he said. It’s a job paying between $76,000 and $100,000 and Bennett expects it to be a run-of-the-mill process for this market — not easy but with plentiful applicants.

In Bangor, Goodwin worries about what is coming for the profession. After 10 years of trying, she finally has a deputy interested in succeeding her when she retires. Harder elections are one obstacle and fixing that problem relies on voters, she said.

“People need to be good consumers of information. Don’t believe everything you hear. Check it out,” she said. “Ask questions and do some research on your own to find out and don’t repeat what you don’t know is true.”

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...