Orono residents might vote early next year on whether to move the town’s municipal election to November from March, which some say could improve voter access for University of Maine students.
The proposal requires an amendment to the town charter, which states that Orono will hold its annual municipal election on the second Tuesday in March or within 30 days of that date to coincide with a state or federal election if one is called.
The amendment would bump the municipal election to the first Tuesday of November.
This year, Orono held its annual election on March 14. It landed during UMaine’s spring break, when many students left the local campus. Those interested in participating had to cast absentee ballots or stay in town to vote.
This is not the first time Orono has considered changing its election date. Councilors in favor of the move have pointed to the value of voter representation in a local election and a potential increase in overall voter turnout. During a public hearing Monday night, a few residents supported the change, while others suggested moving the election to June.
Councilors did not vote on the issue Monday but could decide next month whether to call a referendum election for March 5, 2024. An absentee ballot period would open 30-45 days ahead of the election.
“For all voters in Orono, it would be worth their time to do it once a year,” resident Brendan Trachsel said. “I’m a very active, excited voter, but not everyone is like that. A lot of people see it as just doing their taxes, essentially. I’m sure no one here wants to do their taxes multiple times a year.”
Trachsel supports a November election because it would bring more accessibility and ease to the process, he said. Multiple elections each year are not the best use of time for town staff and residents traveling to their polling places, he said.
Orono had 11,318 registered voters as of Aug. 30, the majority of whom identify as Democrats, according to a town document that breaks down elections and voter turnout since 1998.
The Orono campus of UMaine has nearly 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and not all of them are registered voters. But they could sway results if enough of them vote in a municipal election.
A November election would mean residents would vote at the University of Maine instead of council chambers, the current poll site, Town Manager Sophie Wilson said. This is because campus is the location approved by the secretary of state’s office.
If the date change is approved, nomination papers would go out in late July and be due back around the first week of September, she said.
In Orono, town councilors serve three-year terms. Moving the election forward would require those “seated immediately following the vote to extend their terms until the election after their term end date,” according to information from the town’s attorney, which was included in a Sept. 29 memo to the council.
“For 2024, your election would happen in March,” Wilson told councilors. “Your 2025 election would happen in November. Until you get to a point where everybody on council is getting elected in November, you’re going to have people who are serving 18-month terms until you work through that cycle.”
It is legal for the town to run the school district’s election separately, but double nomination periods would create significant work for town staff, she said.
Resident Fredrica Smith urged the council to consider moving the election to June. Combining the municipal and school elections might draw greater interest, and new councilors would have more time to learn about town operations before a new budget cycle begins, she said.
If participation is a concern, residents and students out of town in June should vote absentee, Smith said.
“I feel strongly that a town election in November would get lost in all of the commotion that’s associated with the state and national elections,” she said, which Wilson previously mentioned as one reason an election date change did not happen in the past.
The next council meeting is slated for 5 p.m. Dec. 11, at the council chambers, 59 Main St. in Orono. Meetings are also viewable on Facebook and Zoom.