Several Maine towns are rushing to hire their top election official ahead of the June 14 primaries, trying to fill vacancies left by people who have retired, taken on new jobs or resigned in the harassment and false accusations after the 2020 elections.
State officials are concerned about the shortage of election workers. At least three municipalities are looking to fill clerk positions and several more are hiring assistant clerks, although some community officials said they were confident they would have someone in time for the primaries.
Town and city clerks are the backbone of elections in Maine. They register voters, oversee election day, and report results to the Secretary of State.
They have also been harassed by false allegations of voter fraud that have spread during the 2020 election, which has significantly changed the working climate and public confidence in their work, said several clerks with decades of experience. . On average, appointed clerks were paid $47,000 a year in 2021, though numbers vary widely by city, according to a salary survey by the Maine Municipal Association.
“It’s not unprecedented to have to scramble to train a new clerk, which begins near Election Day, and our state election officials stand ready to provide support to any cities experiencing transitions close to the primary,” the secretary of state said. Shenna Bellows. “We also know that experienced clerks are regularly available to provide support to cities that have to scramble at the last minute.”
Places like Dallas Plantation, a city of 300, and Portland, a city of 68,400, find themselves in the same predicament in the weeks leading up to the primary. Both have clerks who would like to retire and are trying to hire a new one to oversee their local elections.
David Schinas, 61, told Dallas Plantation officials on April 11 that he intended to retire as a clerk in the town nestled near the Saddleback and Sugarloaf mountains. The city was interviewing candidates last week – just four weeks from the primary.
“I’ll probably help the new person, for sure, during the election just so they don’t come in a bit blind,” said Schinas, who expected someone to be hired before June.
Portland, Maine’s largest city, is on its second attempt to find a new city clerk.
After a fruitless search “did not yield qualified candidates,” the position was reopened, said city communications director Jessica Grondin. The job advertisement attracted two new applicants, who appeared qualified, she said. A clerk to replace Katherine Jones, who plans to retire after the primary election, will be selected by a city search committee.
The search for qualified clerk candidates is common throughout the state.
In the town of Surry, a coastal community near Acadia National Park, local leaders were interviewing candidates for his vacancy. The candidates had “different levels of qualifications”, said Eric Treworgy, chairman of the Surry Board of Selectmen.
The city’s tax collector is qualified to hold the election as a “backstop” in case he can’t make a hiring decision by June 14, Treworgy said. It’s more important for the city to find someone who fits its customer-focused culture, he said.
In Passadumkeag, meanwhile, the town clerk has resigned, shutting down town government, the Bangor Daily News reported last week. Christen Bouchard had been put in charge of a number of other responsibilities in the town, located about 30 miles north of Bangor.
The internal employee shuffle in Augusta city government has left Kelly Gooldrup, the city clerk, to fill three clerk positions in the past few months. Two of these positions have a direct role in the management of elections in the four polling stations in the capital.
There is a shortage of qualified candidates to fill vacant city government clerk positions, Gooldrup said. Many of the applications the city received came from people without relevant municipal experience, she said.
Training new clerks has taken time since preparing for the election, she said.
“When you’re about to prepare for an election, you hope to find someone with experience because they don’t have a lot of time to practice,” Gooldrup said. “That’s where we fell.”
“WE HAVE BEEN THREATENED”
Clerks with years of experience are quitting municipal work altogether due to heightened public tension following the recent election.
Heidi-Noel Grindle, who worked for 15 years as city clerk for Ellsworth near Acadia National Park, left last November due to the stress of election monitoring, harassment from community members and the fear that any mistake will land the city on the newspaper’s front pages.
Most people in town treated the clerk’s office very well, she said. But a few residents a day would randomly make false claims that she was shredding ballots or visiting nursing homes and telling people how to fill out their ballots, Grindle said.
There were also “disconcerting” situations. She recalled a man recording election workers while refusing to say why he was there. Grindle said she worries she won’t be able to find staff for the city’s polling stations and that the stress sometimes makes her arms tingle. She now works in the private sector.
“It’s an environment that makes some people think twice before entering public service as an election worker,” said Secretary of State Bellows.
To ease the pressure on election workers, the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association helped pass a law this year that makes it a Class D misdemeanor when someone “intentionally interferes by force, violence, or intimidation” with an official leading a federal, state or municipal election. Governor Janet Mills signed the bill into law in April.
A key part of the new law is the requirement that the Secretary of State’s staff provide de-escalation training for clerks and training on how to report threats so the state can maintain better data on violent incidents. The hope is that the law will deter violent and threatening behavior.
Before the law was passed, Kittery Clerk Karen Estee described to the state legislature the harassment her office had experienced.
“We have been threatened, called voter suppressors, murderers and my favorite Nazis,” Estee wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “I and my staff and all of my other election workers have been working very, very hard for months to bring about fair elections.”
Innocent mistakes and misinformation about election integrity across the country have changed the climate in which clerks work today, said Waterville City Clerk Patti Dubois, who has been a clerk for more than 20 years.
“Years ago people might not understand the process, but it was easy to explain and you were a trusted leader,” Dubois said. “Most people didn’t question election officials much. They were convinced that they knew what they were doing and that they were doing the right thing.
Some voters’ frustration and confusion with the election stems from the mail. Partisan and nonpartisan groups will often send absentee ballot requests to residents, Dubois said. The clerk’s office will only send one ballot to voters who return a completed absentee ballot request form, but residents who receive multiple requests are sometimes concerned that people will get multiple ballots, which they won’t get.
This year, several people also received a letter saying they had to register to vote, even though they had registered, she said. Dubois was able to check the voter registrations of people who called but has no idea how many people did not call.
“We definitely have the answers, but a lot of times they don’t come to us. Either they just tell their neighbors or someone will call and say, “Well, they told me my ballot wasn’t going to count,” Dubois said. “Well, who are ‘they?’ “Who did you talk to? “
Some voters just don’t like state law, she said. Maine does not require voters to show ID at the polls. There’s also a very specific process, outlined in state law, for how and when a clerk can remove a voter from rolls, even when neighbors know a voter has moved out, Dubois said. (It is a Class C felony for a person to add, delete, change, or void information in the state’s central voter registration system if they do not have the right to change information).
All of these rules are there to protect an election – not to undermine it.
“The elections are being conducted so technically and so precisely that I feel they are more secure now than they have ever been. Part of the problem, I think, across the country is that the laws vary from state to state when it comes to early voting, mail-in voting, mail-in voting, the rules around them, the provisional ballots – people hear about something in another state and they assume something similar is here,” Dubois said.
“We can’t speak to what’s happening in other states, but I do know that here in Maine the elections are completely secure.”
This story was originally posted by The Maine Monitor. The Maine Monitor is a local journalism product published by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic news organization.
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