AUGUSTA — Following two hours of debate, which included concerns about disenfranchising voters already worried about whether their vote will be counted, a proposal to consolidate voting at the Augusta Civic Center for the November presidential election failed last Thursday after no Augusta city councilors seconded the motion.

The failed proposal leaves questions remaining about whether the city will have enough poll workers or enough room to follow social distancing requirements, at polling places in the city’s four wards.

The concerns of several opponents who spoke out against the proposal to consolidate voting at the Augusta Civic Center included claims it would amount to voter suppression by making it tougher for people to get to the polls and vote, and that a state deadline for consolidating polls has already passed.

“I want to be very clear that I’m not accusing anyone of purposely disenfranchising voters, but the research tells us time and time again when we enact barriers, such as transportation and walkability of polls, we are disenfranchising voters,” said resident Courtney Allen, who said she will be a candidate for an at-large seat on the Augusta City Council.

She said consolidating polls would make it hard for some people, including elderly or low-income residents who might not have cars, to vote.

“The impact of using only the Augusta Civic Center,” Allen said, “will have the impact of preventing some residents from voting.”

Susan Robertson, director of human resources and an assistant city manager, said the staff recommendation to consolidate voting was meant to help keep poll workers and voters safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

She said the city has struggled to find enough poll workers to cover elections in all four wards and does not have enough to staff every ward.

One reason for the shortage: Many workers tend to be older residents who have time to volunteer but are also among the higher-risk population for potential coronavirus-related health problems. Officials said 90% of the city’s poll workers are 60 or older.

Robertson said the Augusta Civic Center, which has a large auditorium, would provide more space for social distancing than the city’s smaller polling places. While consolidating voting at the Civic Center would mean more people wold be coming to one location, she said, the venue has more room for workers and voters to spread out.

Matt Nazar, development director for the city, said Augusta’s current ward polling places are the Augusta Civic Center, Augusta City Center, Cony High School and Buker Community Center. Each, other than the Civic Center, would be challenging places to meet social-distancing requirements, especially if they are still being used for their normal uses.

He said if Cony were used, students would not be able to be at the school on Election Day. And if City Center were used, it would be impossible to have City Hall be open for other business, unless voters lined up outside to vote.

Buker Community Center may not have enough space for social distancing. But Nazar said the city could consider going back to using the nearby Augusta State Armory to replace Buker as a polling place.

Robertson said the city, if polls are consolidated, could rent a van on Election day to give residents rides to the polls.

Resident Jonathan Leach, one of about a half-dozen residents who spoke against poll consolidation, said the city is beyond the state deadline for when municipalities are allowed to consolidate their polling places, so the city would be violating the law to consolidate polls now.

He also said merging polling at one location is counterintuitive if the intent is to prevent the spread of disease because more people would be gathered at one location.

“You’re intentionally creating a really excellent disease vector,” Leach said, “for people to be talking to each other, shaking hands, breathing on each other and sharing each other’s space.”

Steve Langsdorf, the city attorney, said Augusta is indeed past the 90-day deadline to consolidate elections. But he said he anticipates Gov. Janet Mills will approve a waiver of the 90-day requirement, as part of executive orders meant to help municipalities hold elections in the safest way possible, as she did ahead of the July primary elections.

He said “every indication we have is there is a strong likelihood” the governor would waive the 90-day deadline for consolidation.

Langsdorf said councilors could approve the proposal to consolidate and only have that take effect if the state were to waive the 90-day deadline.

He said municipalities may move the location of polling places 60 days before an election, so Augusta could move its polling locations until early September.

Robertson said there are 14,410 registered voters in Augusta who are fairly evenly distributed among the four voting wards. She said in the 2016 presidential election, 9,164 residents cast ballots, about one-third through absentee voting.

Tracy Roy, deputy director of finance and administration, who was also acting city manager at the time of the July primary, which was consolidated at the Civic Center, said 1,009 residents voted in person at the Civic Center, while 2,198 voted absentee before the election.

Margaret Noel, deputy director of the Augusta Civic Center, said the facility could handle three times the amount of voters who voted in the primary and still not expect to have long lines, without long wait times and without having anyone have to wait outside.

She said if there were a larger turnout than that, it would still be manageable — but there would be lines. She added those lines would not be longer than they would be at ward polling places, with the same turnout.

“We can handle any amount, just like any polling place would be able to,” she said.

At the start of the public hearing Thursday, Mayor David Rollins sought to assure residents the consolidation proposal from city staff had no connection to partisan politics. He said some residents had emailed city officials with concerns about consolidating the polls at a time when accusations about trying to influence the results of the presidential election continue at the national level.

“For the last week, some of us have been subjected to quite a bit of email traffic and some of it very accusatory,” Rollins said. “I want to assure everybody the Augusta City Council is a nonpartisan legislative body. We’re not affiliated with any party. We are objective.

“I don’t want people to think we are somehow involved in voter suppression, in the disenfranchisement of any group or groups. That’s the furthest thing from any of our minds.”

Rollins said the city will continue to encourage people to vote by absentee ballot before the election, which would prevent their having to go to the polls on Election Day.

The city will also offer in-person voting at Augusta City Center prior to the election, likely by the beginning of October.

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