The national election in November is likely to look different from previous elections because of precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Sen. Angus King, seen at an event in February, spoke from his home in Brunswick on Thursday night in a discussion of safe elections during the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

What it shouldn’t look like, according to U.S. Sen. Angus King, is the April 7 primary in Wisconsin, where a Democratic governor attempted to postpone in-person voting and Republican legislators – with backing from the U.S. Supreme Court – refused to go along.

“What we really don’t want is a repeat of what we saw in Wisconsin, where people are literally having to choose between taking a disease risk or exercising their right to vote,” King said in a virtual town hall event Thursday night hosted by the League of Women Voters of Maine in partnership with the Declaration for American Democracy. “You should not have to make that kind of decision.”

King, an independent, spoke from his home in Brunswick to moderator Anna Kellar, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine. Viewers connected through Facebook Live or Zoom.

Four other speakers followed King: Alison Beyea of the ACLU of Maine, Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo, Lori Parham of Maine AARP and Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice.

All spoke of the need for safe and fair elections, and encouraged Mainers to request and use absentee ballots to keep down crowds on Election Day. The average clerk at a polling station will interact with 700 people on Election Day, King said, and the average voter about 20.

Many poll workers are retirees, the age group that is most vulnerable to the dangers of contracting COVID-19.

“We have to be sure that this is perceived, because I believe it is, as a nonpartisan task,” King said. “All the studies indicate that voting by mail doesn’t favor one party or the other.”

Congress allocated $400 million for election assistance to states and localities as part of the CARES Act. In order to gain access to the federal money, however, each state must commit to a 20 percent match.

In order for Maine to receive its allocation of $3.29 million, the state would need to put up $650,000. The Legislature is not currently in session and it’s uncertain whether specific authorization is needed. In addition, state revenues have decreased dramatically because of the economic slowdown due to the pandemic.

Even if every state receives its allocation, King said the amount is more of a down payment and “nowhere near what would be necessary to make a significant change in the voting structure of our country.”

The senator noted that states and municipalities run elections, but that the federal government also plays a role. He pointed out that four states – Washington, Oregon, Utah and Colorado – administer elections entirely by mail, although voters can still drop off or cast their ballots at a voting center on Election Day. Hawaii also does this.

Fourteen states have no provision for voting by mail. The Declaration for American Democracy Coalition is asking Congress for $4 billion toward election protection this year for the heath and safety of poll workers and voters, for expanding voter registration options and early voting and including postage-paid vote-by-mail options without the need for an excuse, as some states require.

“Getting the next package through the U.S. Senate is going to take 60 votes,” King said. “That means it has to be bipartisan.”

King also addressed concerns about the U.S. Postal Service and called it a basic piece of our national infrastructure that shouldn’t be a political issue. He pointed to a recent report from the Senate Intelligence Committee confirming Russian interference in the 2016 election designed to denigrate Hillary Clinton and favor Donald Trump.

One of Russia’s most effective tools, he said, is disinformation and the ease with which it can be spread.

“The best defense for that is an informed citizenry,” King said. “We can’t close down people’s access to information. We have an open society. But what we have to do is be a little more discerning about what we read and believe and pass on.”

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