Voters sit and stand as they fill in their ballots on Nov. 5, 2019, at Augusta City Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — City councilors have rejected a proposal to consolidate all voting from the existing four ward polling locations to the Augusta Civic Center, citing concerns that a centralized location would result in lower voter turnout by residents without transportation.

The poll consolidation was proposed by Ward 3 Councilor Michael Michaud and recommended by City Clerk Kelly Gooldrup as a way to address problems including the increasing difficulty of finding enough qualified workers to oversee four polling sites. The proposal was rejected in a 3-5 vote by councilors Thursday night following extensive debate and public comment.

Councilors and residents said studies indicate when the number of polling locations is reduced, voter turnout generally goes down. Others noted that at one time Augusta had eight wards and voting at 16 different sites spread across the city’s neighborhoods.

“Allowing our citizens to exercise a constitutional right, we should make that easier, not harder,” said Patrick Paradis, a former city councilor and state legislator. “This looks like a solution looking for a problem. There is no problem having four wards. This is a red herring that comes back every 10 years.”

Advocates for the change said the city has increasingly had a hard time finding enough qualified election wardens and poll workers to run elections at four separate sites. During the pandemic elections were temporarily consolidated at the city-owned Augusta Civic Center and went smoothly.

There are problems at existing polling locations, consolidation advocates say, including that having voting at Cony Middle and High School and Buker Community center can be disruptive or even dangerous to children at those sites. In addition, long lines to vote at Augusta City Center have forced voters to stand outside in the cold to vote, the proposal advocates say, and there is a lack of parking at some locations and confusion in some voters about where they are supposed to vote.


Michaud emphasized that the proposal was meant to make voting smoother, and defended it against suggestions it could be a form of voter suppression. He said adult voters at Buker, where the city has a children’s’ daycare program, were using the same restroom as children and is disruptive, and is also disruptive at Cony. Consolidating, he said, would address those concerns as well as eliminate sometimes-long lines to vote at city center, and cost less, saving $12,000 or $13,000 an election.

“Sometimes it gets a little busy (in elections at Augusta City Center), and when voter turnout is high, people have had to wait and left because they had to wait outside,” he said. “The least of my motivations is voter suppression. I truly believe, for every American, it is your birthright to vote.”

He acknowledged the city once had 16 voting locations but said the reason it was reduced those down to the current four sites was that more people gained access to transportation when car ownership increased over the years. He said the city, at least for the next election, could have transportation available at the four voting locations to take any voters who didn’t have transportation, or weren’t aware of polls being consolidated, to the civic center to vote and back.

When the idea was first raised, At-Large Councilor Abigail St. Valle said it could amount to voter suppression by making it harder for marginalized people, including poor people and recent immigrants who don’t drive, to vote. She said many residents still lack transportation as the city does not have public transportation. She cited a 2020 study that indicated for every 10th of a mile a poll location is moved farther away from a voter, it reduces voter turnout by 0.5%. She said if Augusta were to consolidate all voting at the civic center that would be farther to travel for many voters, resulting in, based upon the study’s findings, an average decrease in voter turnout of 18.8%.

“That’s not something I’m willing to risk, so I won’t be voting for this,” St. Valle said. “I think we’re trying to solve an issue with something that may create more problems for us. We’re talking about people not having transportation back in the day. But I don’t think there’s been improvements to transportation in the city since that time. If we had buses around the city on a regular basis, maybe that would call for us to consolidate. I don’t think we’re at that point.”

Augusta already has consolidated the voting for some elections when the turnout was expected to be low.

Data provided by Gooldrup showed the average cost to run a consolidated election with state and municipal ballots was $28,147, while the average cost to run an election with the individual ward polling sites was $40,643.

Resident Mary Saunders said if someone doesn’t have a car or anyone to drive them to the polls, and thus has to pay a taxi to take them to vote, that amounts to a poll tax in which you effectively have to pay money to vote.

“I think we should be making it easier for people to vote, not harder,” she said. “I don’t think this is something we should be trying to economize on.”

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