Voters check in and pick up ballots at the Augusta Civic Center, where all the city’s wards voted, during the July 14 primary. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — The threat of the coronavirus — and a related lack of enough election workers to work the polls in the city’s four voting wards — has Augusta officials considering consolidating all in-person voting in the November presidential elections to the Augusta Civic Center.

The proposal, recommended by city staff given a lack of election workers and an eye on providing enough space for social distancing at the polls, goes to city councilors for consideration Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.

The city consolidated voting at the Augusta Civic Center for the July 14 primary elections.

Mayor David Rollins is among those who prefer voting physically take place within the wards, but he said the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may provide enough reasons to consolidate this election. The presidential election is expected to drive a large turnout in November.

“I’m in favor, philosophically, of voting in the wards, but I think extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” Rollins said. “We don’t want to do away with ward voting (for other future elections), but in the face of a pandemic, and the inability to get enough poll workers, (consolidation) could be the best solution.”

Susan Robertson, director of human resources and an assistant city manager, said the city has struggled to find enough poll workers to cover elections. She said the city could be as many as 50 people short of having enough to staff polls in all four of the city’s wards.

One reason for the shortage is that many workers tend to be older residents who have the time to do so, but are also among the higher risk population for potential coronavirus-related health problems.

Robertson said the Augusta Civic Center, which has a large auditorium and multiple large meeting spaces, would provide more space for social distancing than the city’s other smaller polling places. While consolidating voting at the Civic Center means more people will be coming to one location, she said, it has more room for them to spread out.

“The space here is what makes it attractive,” Robertson said of the Civic Center. “It will be easier where we have more space for social distancing.”

Other polling places usually used by the city in the wards, such as Cony High School, have less space for social distancing.

Resident Courtney Allen, in a letter to the editor, said she is adamantly opposed to consolidating the polls for the November election. Allen, who is a candidate for an at-large seat on the Augusta City Council, said doing so would impact the ability of people who don’t have transportation to be able to vote.

“Consolidating at one location that is out of reach through walking will result in voter suppression of people living in poverty,” she said, arguing that keeping voting locations spread out would result in fewer people being in one location at a time.

Rollins said he wants the city to ensure three things: That voters and poll workers are kept safe and healthy, that residents don’t have to wait in long lines in close proximity to others in order to vote, and that the city has enough people to oversee the election.

He suggested the city could possibly divide the Civic Center up into two or four sections, each with its own entrance, to spread out residents, and make lines shorter and faster-moving.

Rollins and Robertson both said the July election, which had a smaller turnout than expected for November, at the Civic Center seemed to go smoothly. Robertson said about 1,000 voted there in July, and she didn’t think there were more than three or four people in line at a time.

Rollins said the city will continue to encourage people to vote by absentee ballot before the election, in which case they wouldn’t have to go to the polls in person on Election Day. The city will also offer in-person voting at Augusta City Center prior to the election.

Robertson said state officials have not yet said when such in-person voting may start, but it would likely be available by the beginning of October.

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