Even in the face of COVID-19, we need to do everything we can to ensure every eligible Maine voter gets to vote safely and securely in both the upcoming primary and general elections. Here’s how we can do it.

As John Lennon wrote: “Strange days indeed.” The challenges the pandemic have thrust upon our state have tested us all in ways we never dreamed of. Ironically, a disease that has pushed us apart into isolation is also reminding us how connected we are. The distance between us has caused us to reflect even more on the value of community.

And there is little more important to that sense of community than the pride we feel in choosing our leaders through elections. It is something we hold dear no matter our age, our political affiliation, or whether we live in Madawaska, Augusta or Fryeburg.

The governor has wisely issued an executive order moving the primary from June 9 to July 14. This postponement buys us time to plan measures that protect the health of poll workers, the rights of voters, and the integrity of the election. So let’s start planning.

The key to success will be enabling absentee voting by mail to the greatest extent possible. If the vast majority of ballots are returned by mail, it will free up actual in-person voting for those who are unable to vote absentee. Many of our most vulnerable residents lack a stable postal address. Other voters need assistance in casting their ballots due to disabilities or language barriers. Some just may feel they want to show up to the polls personally, as is their right. None of them should  be disenfranchised.

Maine voters and election officials are no strangers to absentee voting. Since 2000, state law has allowed for “no-excuse” absentee voting; that is, no excuse is required to request an absentee ballot. In the two decades since, the percentage of votes cast through absentee ballots has surged from 10% in 2000 to about 30% more recently.

Make no mistake: Our absentee voting system has safeguards to protect against fraud and preserve voter privacy. Voters must specifically request an absentee ballot before each election. Mailed ballots cannot be forwarded if a voter moves; they are returned as undeliverable. After marking their ballots, voters enclose them in a secure envelope and sign the envelope.

Election officials must verify that the ballot has been signed, and that the signature matches one already on file. Otherwise, the ballot will likely be rejected unless the clerk can contact the voter to correct the problem. Absentee ballots are securely stored until they are ready to be opened and counted immediately before, or on, Election Day. These rules have served us well and the experience has been virtually problem free.

While good procedures are in place, state election officials must prepare for an expected massive scaling-up of absentee voting done predominantly by mail. In the November 2018 general election, about 186,000 absentee ballots were cast. However, less than a third of these absentee voters actually received and returned their ballots by mail. Many who received ballots in the mail dropped off their completed ballots in person at the clerk’s office. And 35% did not use the mail at all: they simply visited the clerk’s office before Election Day, where they received and marked their absentee ballots in one trip.

As long as the current statewide stay-at-home order remains in force, though, most voters should plan to request an absentee ballot for the July primary, complete it at home, and return it by mail.

Fortunately, the July election is a primary, where turnout is typically much lower than in a general election. We hope things will be back to “normal” by November. But in case they are not, now is the time to get ready, just in case. Election officials will need help with staffing. They will need safety equipment to prevent transmission of the virus during in-person voting and ballot counting. Voters may need accommodation if they do not have access to a printer, scanner or stamps at home.

Maine has a proud tradition of strong voter turnout and well-run elections. No one takes that more seriously than our town and city clerks — just ask them.

Working together, our governor, secretary of state and municipalities can and will develop procedures to protect the health of the public and our poll workers while at the same time protecting the health and integrity of our voting system  Don’t let the conspiracy theorists tell you otherwise.

Roger Katz of Augusta is a former Republican state senator. He now practices law in Augusta. Shenna Bellows of Manchester is a Democratic state senator.


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