Maine’s election landscape was drastically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of the changes made to protect voters and poll workers from the virus aren’t going away anytime soon.

“The drop boxes are here to stay,” says Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

That’s not the case for Dunlap himself. He is finishing his fourth consecutive two-year term in office and cannot serve another term. But changes he ushered in during the pandemic, including drop boxes, a new online absentee ballot tracking system and other measures, are likely to become permanent fixtures.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap talks to reporters Tuesday afternoon outside the Augusta Civic Center, where the city’s third ward votes. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Drop boxes were installed in dozens of municipalities across the state. They were one of the most visible innovations election officials used to reduce the risks of virus transmission at the polls and address concerns about possible delays in U.S. Postal Service delivery of absentee ballots.

Many of the changes in voting systems were made administratively, under the terms of an executive order Gov. Janet Mills issued in response to the civil emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dunlap said he expects legislation will be proposed to codify some of the changes that helped improve voting access and turnout during the pandemic, together with other proposals for additional reforms. These could include online voter registration, an all-mail balloting system, more time for in-person absentee voting, and accepting mailed ballots that arrive after the polls closed, provided they are postmarked no later than Election Day.

Dunlap and advocacy groups that worked to adapt Maine’s election system to the COVID-19 crisis said much was learned about voter preferences and behavior as a result of the pandemic.

“Voters really like having all these choices in how they can vote,” said Anna Kellar, joint executive director for the League of Women Voters of Maine and the Maine Center for Clean Elections Democracy Partnership.

Kellar said the pandemic basically forced officials to make voting easier, and much of what they did worked.

“But we need to be careful to not start thinking this election went well, therefore nothing needs to change,” said Kellar, who uses the pronoun they/them. “Instead we need to really invest in what we learned so we come out of it with something even better and easier.”

They said municipalities, which run elections in Maine, need more attention and support from the state to help cover the cost of elections and improve public education and communication about voting.

“Some towns do amazing work in providing information to voters,”  they said. “Other towns, you could go on their website and not even know an election was happening at all. There’s been a lot of good work that’s been done under the strain of this pandemic, but there are some weaknesses that have been revealed, too.”

One helpful reform would be a central online voter resource center, they said. This would be a one-stop place where voters could do everything from checking the status of their absentee ballot to registering to vote. Maine remains one of about only 10 states that do not allow online voter registration.

Kellar and Dunlap both praised local officials for adapting to the challenges of the pandemic and a record turnout.

“We literally tripled their workloads in many cases and in every case they stepped up and got the work done amazingly,” Dunlap said of local clerks and their co-workers.

One election issue that could spark debate is the idea of post-election audits. Kellar and other voting rights advocates would like to see Maine conduct random audits to verify the accuracy of its ballot-counting system. A bill passed into law in 2019 requires Dunlap’s office to study the matter and report back to the Legislature next year.

However, Dunlap and other state election officials have been hesitant to embrace mandated audits. They say that recounts of close races perform a similar function and have shown the state’s voting system is solid and accurate. Having to conduct audits would increase the workload for a thinly staffed elections bureau in state government, they say.

Perhaps the most visible change that will take place in Maine’s next major election cycle is that Dunlap, who has served four consecutive terms as secretary of state, won’t be overseeing the action because of term limits.

Under the Maine Constitution, the Legislature elects the secretary of state and two other constitutional officers, the attorney general and state treasurer. Democrats retained a majority in the Legislature in last week’s election, so Dunlap’s successor will come from that party’s ranks.

Several Democrats have emerged as candidates, including House Majority Leader Matthew Moonen of Portland; Reps. Erik Jorgensen of Portland, Craig Hickman of Winthrop and Janice Cooper of Yarmouth; Sen. Justin Chenette of Saco; and a former lawmaker, Tom Bull, who represented Freeport in the late 1990s.

Moonen, Jorgensen, Hickman and Cooper are all term-limited out of office. Chenette chose not to seek re-election in 2020. The Legislature normally convenes in December to elect its leaders and vote on constitutional officers, although the pandemic has created uncertainty about when and where that will take place this year.

Kellar said a change in leadership for the office will be significant because the secretary of state has broad authority under the law and could be a strong advocate for improved voting access and voter rights.

However, they also noted that the pandemic is putting a squeeze on the state budget. Pushing for changes that cost taxpayers money will compete with other government needs – challenging lawmakers and advocates for voting rights.

“We want to have their back in terms of advocating for their funding and making sure they are staffed up to where they need to be,” Kellar said. “But we also are not going to stop asking them to be better and to keep making voter safer and easier.”


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