Despite added safety protocols and longer ballots, voters in several central Maine communities cast their ballots in a smooth-and-orderly fashion during Tuesday’s primary election.

Voter turnout was light on Election Day in Waterville, China, Fairfield, Norridgewock and Skowhegan, but the addition of hundreds of absentee ballots swelled the number of votes cast, leading the Waterville election warden to estimate more total votes were cast in the July primary than are usually cast in a June primary.

With the light turnout in Waterville, there were no lines and plenty of space for social distancing.

“It’s extremely slow,” election warden Roland Hallee said at 1 p.m. at The Elm on College Avenue. “I keep calling it a June primary, though it’s July. For a June primary, it’s even slower than normal, but we had an unusual number of absentee ballots — five or six times more than we normally get.

“So far, we’ve processed about, give or take, 1,600, and we have a bunch more — a couple dozen. The number of absentee ballots far outnumber the normal number of people that vote in a June primary.”

Hallee said he was not aware of any problems with absentee ballots.

“I wasn’t present for the processing of absentee ballots,” he said. “They did it yesterday. It’s usually done at City Hall. When they were here, they were cleared that they’re okay.”

Hallee said “99.5%” of voters who turned out at the polls Tuesday were wearing masks.

“I’d say we’ve seen a few come through without them,” he said. “Probably less than a dozen.”

Hallee, who has been working the polls for 34 years, noted the contrast Tuesday to a very different election in March when voters were lined out the door and into the parking lot.

“We’ve had stretches today when we’ve had no one here at all,” he said.

It was also quiet outside the building, where Democratic State Rep. Bruce White, of District 109, and Rick Foss, Republican candidate who sought the nomination for White’s seat, were greeting voters.

Terry Carver, 75, of Waterville said he voted for Betsy Sweet for U.S. Senate in Tuesday’s primary.

“The reason I voted for her is that I’m more in line with her philosophies, but at the same time, I think Sara Gideon has a better chance of defeating the Republican candidate,” Carver said. “I think probably Sara Gideon will win the election because of the amount of advertising, etcetera.”

Carver said he also voted in favor of the bond issues to fund high-speed internet and infrastructure.

A Waterville resident, left, arrives Tuesday ready to vote at The Elm. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“Internet service is needed, especially right now, if we have all schools on virtual,” he said. “Internet service should be relatively cheap and available to everyone. Same way with building bridges and highways. I’m in favor. I think to move forward, we have to continue building our infrastructure.”

Carver said he had no problem getting in and out of the polls Tuesday.

“November may be different,” he noted.

Cassie Diplock, 26, said she voted against the bond question regarding internet, but she voted in favor of the infrastructure question. What drew her to the polls Tuesday, she said, was to exercise her duty as a citizen to vote.

“I’m just surprised how empty it is,” she said.

Eric Thomas, 64, said he voted for Betsy Sweet because her views are aligned with his.

“With ranked-choice voting,” he said, “I feel more comfortable about voting for who I really want to vote for.”

Bryan Francke, 40, said he voted for White, Sweet and Elizabeth Mitchell for Kennebec County probate judge. He also approved both bond issues.

“I enjoy working with Bruce White,” he said. “I’ve been working with him for about seven years, and I believe he’s a good representative. Libby Mitchell is a good probate judge. Betsy Sweet is pro-Medicare for all, and tries to save the way that we do business.”

CHINA

The polls in China saw a steady flow of voters throughout the day, with few delays.

Steven Keaten, an Election Day volunteer, said there were one or two instances where people had to wait in line under a tent outside of the office.

Voters enter the China town office Tuesday to cast their ballots. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“It’s been a very steady day,” Keaten said. “I think the longest wait time was seven or eight minutes, but other than that, people have been coming right in and out.”

Voters were let into the building in groups of seven to eliminate the possibility of any crowding and to ensure that social distancing was possible. 

“Everyone has been pretty cooperative with the rules we have,” Keaten said. “We’ve had some people tell us that they’re tired of wearing the mask or some who aren’t wearing masks at all, but I haven’t heard any major complaints.” 

For voter Toni Wall, the added protocols were no big deal. 

“This is the new normal,” Wall said. “We have to wear our masks now, we have to wash our hands more. It’s just what we have to do, so this was no problem.” 

For voter Anson Biller, who owns and operates Full Fork Farm in China, the Senate race was particularly important. 

“I pay close attention to climate change and what stances the candidates have taken on that,” Biller said. “For myself, Betsy Sweet has acknowledged some things about farming practices and using that as a means to take carbon emissions out of the air, so I like that.” 

Biller said it only took him around 10 minutes to go through the entire voting process, including waiting to be let into the building. 

About 800 residents of China cast their votes using absentee ballots, according to Town Manager Dennis Heath.

FAIRFIELD

The election staff at Fairfield’s Community Center also reported a fairly smooth Election Day. 

By 1 p.m., Town Clerk Christine Keller reported more than 250 voters had cast their ballots in person, and more than 570 had submitted absentee ballots.

Keller said those working the polls had received good feedback on their clear face coverings.

“We’ve heard some positive things about our clear face masks and face shields,” Keller said. “Some people read lips, so it’s easier for them to understand us this way, so that’s great. I think we’re going to look into getting clear masks for the presidential election in November, as well.”

To further protect voters, staff members disinfected the booths, writing utensils and tables several times an hour, according to Keller.

Martha Chase of Fairfield said the most important issue on the ballot was the Senate election because she’s lost faith in Republican Senator Susan Collins.

Chase said she disagrees with several of Collins’ recent decisions, including her support of the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, voting to acquit President Donald Trump at his impeachment trial in February and voting in support of the 2017 GOP Tax Bill, which cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%.

Fairfield voters cast their ballots Tuesday at the Fairfield Community Center. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Her vote on that tax bill allowed the ultra rich to have more privileges,” Chase said. “And it wasn’t a fair balance for the middle class or poor populations.”

Although Chase did not say if she voted for Betsy Sweet, Bre Kidman or Sarah Gideon, she noted the state needs to be better represented.

“I feel like we need to make a change,” Chase said. “Susan Collins has done fine in the past, but her recent choices are some that I feel don’t represent me. Some of her actions have failed the common folk, and I just don’t trust her anymore.”

NORRIDGEWOCK

At Mill Stream Elementary School, voters were ushered into the side of the gymnasium through a one-way entry. Masks and hand sanitizer were made available for free to all voters, provided by a Keep Maine Healthy grant.

Town Manager Richard LaBelle said about 15% of voters had requested absentee ballots, and the “return rate was exceptional.”

Although turnout at the polls was consistent with a regular primary and school election, he said absentee ballots drove voter participation.

“The school questions bring out a large amount,” LaBelle said.

He also said requests for absentee ballots during this primary election are much higher than in previous years. Typically, they get these kind of requests for ballots during a general election.

While many voters came with their own masks, some chose not to wear one. The gymnasium was set up to allow for proper social distancing and as soon as a voter left the booth, an election worker was there to sanitize the space.

“The legal postings (to wear masks) are up and in line with the executive order, but it’s difficult for us and election workers to enforce that given the medical exemptions. We don’t want to upset anybody,” LaBelle said, adding that there was one issue with a voter early into the morning, but other than that, there weren’t any major hiccups.

“I just want to emphasize our appreciation as town staff and election workers of people being respectful. We had an unfortunate incident this morning with one of our first voters that set it off on a bad tone, but we get it. Some people think that masks are political statements and can be perceived as that. We are just grateful for the support we have in the community. People have been extraordinarily patient and respectful of the workers.”

A voter arrives at the polls Tuesday at Mill Stream Elementary School in Norridgewock. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

LaBelle added the town will likely have a similar model for the November election, where voters enter through the side and the facility is set up as a one-way zone.

“It’s a little unconventional and a little over the top if you come in and we’re empty,” LaBelle said, “but if you have 10 people in here, it’s tough to manage the flow of folks. We have a few extra town employees here today to do sanitation and whatnot.”

He said due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been tougher to recruit election workers.

“I think many were hesitant (because of the virus),” LaBelle said. “We have plenty of PPE (personal protective equipment). We’re offering it for free through the Keep Maine Healthy grant.”

Still to come, he said, will be the now-more-difficult process of counting the school ballots, which is typically done in pairs.

“That will be complicated because of social distancing,” he said.

SKOWHEGAN

Like in Norridgewock, the Skowhegan Town Office was arranged to allow voters to enter through the main entrance and exit through the side of the building. This allowed for one-way traffic and proper social distancing.

“We’ve definitely had a lot of requests for absentee ballots,” Town Clerk Gail Pelotte said, adding about 1,000 absentee ballots had been requested and 975 had already been returned.

“Everybody has been really good. We have it so we can only have 12 people in the room with workers, and about six times (so far) we’ve had to shut it down and let the room clear out before letting more in. My horror was that we were going to have lines out the door.

“You see stories in other states where it’s not a good situation. I think we’ve only had a concern come up that there’s no curtains on the booths, but everybody is spread so far apart.”

Due to the pandemic, Pelotte said, only eight of the booths were available for voters to use to allow for safe distancing. Although 25 to 30 were set up, many were blocked off and used as distancing markers. After a voter used a booth, an elections worker sanitized the station, Pelotte said.

Hand sanitizer was available and signs encouraged voters to wear masks, although Pelotte said no one at the polls was asked to wear one.

“It’s recommended, but we can’t turn somebody away because they aren’t wearing a mask,” Pelotte said. “I had somebody talk to me on the phone, saying that they knew somebody that didn’t come because people weren’t wearing a mask, but people have had the opportunity to get absentee ballots since April or May.”

Many voters wore masks and were cautious with social distancing, Pelotte said.

“I just kind of hope that the state doesn’t extend our stuff, and that they give us clerks some more time to do necessary things because it has been chaotic, to say the least,” Pelotte said. “But also, we are dealing with a pandemic.”

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