What a difference a month makes. Freedoms Americans took for granted have been curtailed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. A financial tsunami of layoffs, closures and market uncertainty have slammed the economy. Tens of thousands of people have died worldwide and future projections, even with social distancing, are staggering. In the face of such a threat, all the other major issues of the day fade to background noise.
But as we adapt to this strange, temporary way of life and theorize about what the world will look like when this is all over, we must also vigilantly protect the systems that will help America rebuild. Open government, especially fair, timely and accessible elections, cannot be casualties of the coronavirus.
Maine held its presidential primaries March 3, but the primary elections for other federal, state and county offices are slated for June 9. This is also town meeting season, when the residents of many small towns usually gather to pass annual budgets and elect local officials. Several Hancock County towns, including Mount Desert, Lamoine and Blue Hill, have postponed their meetings.
Before adjourning, the state Legislature approved a package of bills allowing municipalities to operate on current budgets until January, if necessary, and granting the Governor authority to facilitate voting in June. Large gatherings at the polls may not be in the best interest of public health if social distancing guidelines are still in place two months from now. Fortunately, the state already has an established absentee voting system that gets high marks for both voter confidence and convenience. In the 2016 presidential election, over 250,000 Maine voters requested absentee ballots.
Maine law makes it easy to cast an absentee ballot and you don’t have to have a reason for doing so. Voters can call their town clerks or request a ballot online on the website of the Secretary of State’s Office. The ballot will be mailed to the voter’s residence. Raising awareness about the process is imperative so that all voters can exercise their rights safely.
Area municipal officials already are finding ways to carry on with essential business and engage public participation from afar. Clever minds in Blue Hill came up with plan for drive-through voting for local elections. Although the plan had to be scrapped following the Governor’s stay-at-home order, it clearly demonstrated local commitment to preserving the democratic process. In Ellsworth, City Council meetings are broadcast on multiple platforms and councilors field questions submitted digitally.
Times like these prove how essential it is to have well-informed, compassionate, collaborative officials at all levels of government. When we vote, we are picking leaders who one day may be called upon to shepherd us through situations as seemingly unimaginable as this. What could be more vital than preserving that process?