State officials sought to assure the public Thursday that even during a pandemic and amid concerns about potential disruptions Maine polling places would be safe and orderly on Election Day, now just 25 days away.

Although some states are bracing for serious problems with turnout or absentee voting, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap declared at a media briefing that Maine’s election systems are all in order and that state and local officials are preparing thoroughly for the election.

Separately, Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey issued written guidance to election officials, law enforcement and voters spelling out state laws that protect voting rights.

Dunlap appeared with Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, during his biweekly briefing to the media on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dunlap said polling places were being readied across the state, including the installation of protective Plexiglas barriers for polling place workers and spaced out voting booths for voters who want to vote in-person.

“We will have in-person voting on Election Day at all polling places,” Dunlap said.

But he warned voters to be prepared to wait as occupancy limits, social distancing requirements and sanitation measures in place to protect against the spread of the virus meant fewer voters would be allowed in at any one time. “You may have to wait outside,” Dunlap said. “So, be prepared for the weather and dress accordingly.”

Dunlap also said that facial coverings will be required at polling places, but added that nobody could be turned away if they did not have one when they came to vote.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said no outbreaks of COVID-19 were associated with in-person voting in Maine’s primary elections in July. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, file Buy this Photo

He said there were no outbreaks of COVID-19 infections associated with in-person voting during Maine’s primary election in July.

“Which tells us that if you follow the guidelines and use things like our face masks, then we have a very strong chance of defeating the spread of the coronavirus and that people can vote and participate in our democracy and do so without fear,” Dunlap said.

Shah, the state’s top public health official, added: “If you are doing your civic obligation by voting, do your civil obligation and wear a mask, too.”

Dunlap said voters could avoid risks and delays by requesting and casting an absentee ballot. He and Shah, along with other election and health experts, have encouraged absentee voting as a safer option than visiting a possibly crowded polling place.

Many Mainers are taking that advice to heart. More than 277,000 voters have already requested absentee ballots, which began arriving in mailboxes last week. Dunlap said more than 35,000 voters had already returned their ballots.

He again estimated that as many as 500,000 to 600,000, or up to 57 percent, of the state’s estimated 1.06 million registered voters would vote remotely. That would shatter all records for absentee voting in Maine, which were set during the July primary.

Dunlap reminded voters to follow instructions for signing their absentee ballot envelopes and to deposit completed ballots in drop boxes in the town where live. Failure to do either of those things could result in having the ballot rejected.

Election officials also are urging absentee voters to fill out and return their ballots quickly. Dunlap said clerks are being directed to contact absentee voters within 24 hours if their ballot is rejected, so any errors could be rectified and ballots can be legitimately cast.

Maine typically is among the states with the highest voter turnout during presidential election years and interest in the election this year is intense with an electorate that is deeply divided along partisan lines. Concerns over public health, the economy and division over the handling of the pandemic by President Trump have added urgency to the election.

Mainers also will decide closely watched and highly competitive U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins and her Democratic challenger, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon. The race also features two independents, Max Linn and Lisa Savage.

Dunlap also said election officials were prepared to respond to any attempts to intimidate or interfere with those exercising their voting rights. Concerns that armed right-wing militias or other groups will try to intimidate voters by showing up as “polling place observers” on Election Day were also being taken into consideration, he said.

Westbrook poll workers sit behind clear plastic barriers while waiting for voters to arrive at the Fred C. Westcott School for Maine’s primary elections on July 14. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dunlap said his office, along with the governor’s office and Frey, the attorney general, were working with local election officials to ensure polling place security – but he said the state was unaware of any organized effort to disrupt voting.

Polling place wardens have the “exclusive authority to regulate activity, not only in the polling place, but within 250 feet of the entrance of the polling place,” Dunlap said.

“So we’ve been making sure that wardens have the information that if someone tries to intimidate voters or get in the way of people participating in the process they have the legal authority to ask them to leave and if they refuse they can have law enforcement remove them for the duration of the election if they do not comply with the warden’s directions.”

Frey said the state was prepared to enforce all state and federal laws protecting the election process and voter rights.

“All voters should feel safe and secure knowing that state and federal law protects their fundamental right to vote, free of intimidation and harassment,” Frey said in a prepared statement. “Voting is a fundamental right and our duty as citizens.”

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