Several Maine towns and cities are hurrying to hire their top election official as the June 14 primaries approach, trying to fill vacancies left by people who retired, took new jobs or quit in the wake of harassment and false accusations following the 2020 election.
State officials are concerned about shortages of election workers. At least three municipalities are looking to fill clerk positions and several more are hiring deputy clerks, though some community officials said they were confident they’d have someone in time for the primaries.
Town and city clerks are the backbone of Maine elections. They register voters, oversee election day and report results to the Secretary of State.
They also received the brunt of harassment from false allegations of voter fraud that spilled out of the 2020 election, which significantly changed the work climate and public trust in their jobs, said several clerks with decades of experience. On average, appointed clerks were paid $47,000 a year in 2021, though numbers varied widely between towns, according to a survey of salaries by the Maine Municipal Association.
“It is not unprecedented to have to scramble to train a new clerk, who is starting close to Election Day, and our state election officials are standing by to provide support to any towns that experience transitions close to the primary,” said Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. “We also know that experienced clerks routinely are available to provide support to towns that are having to scramble at the last minute.”
Places like Dallas Plantation, a town of 300 residents, and Portland, a city of 68,400, find themselves in the same predicament in the weeks before 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, notified Dallas Plantation officials on April 11 that he intends to retire as clerk in the town tucked away near Saddleback and Sugarloaf mountains. The town was interviewing candidates last week — just four weeks from the primary.
“I will probably help the new person, for sure, during the election just so they’re not going in somewhat blind,” said Schinas, who anticipated someone would be hired before June.
Portland, the largest city in Maine, is on its second attempt at finding a new city clerk.
After an unsuccessful search did “not get qualified applicants,” the job was opened again, said the city’s communication director, Jessica Grondin. The job posting 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.
Searching for qualified clerk candidates is common across the state.
In the town of Surry, a coastal community near Acadia National Park, local leaders were interviewing candidates for its vacant position. Applicants had “varying levels of qualifications,” said Eric Treworgy, the chairman of the Surry Board of Selectmen.
The town tax collector is qualified to run the election as a “backstop” in case they cannot make a hiring decision before June 14, Treworgy said. It is more important for the town to find someone who fits its customer-focused culture, he said.
In Passadumkeag, meanwhile, the town clerk has resigned, effectively shutting down the town’s government, the Bangor Daily News reported last week. Christen Bouchard had been saddled with a number of other responsibilities at the town, located about 30 miles north of Bangor.
Internal shuffling of employees within the Augusta city government left Kelly Gooldrup, the city clerk, to fill three clerk jobs in the past several months. Two of those positions have a direct role in running the election at the capital city’s four voting locations.
There is a shortage of qualified candidates to fill open clerk jobs in municipal governments, Gooldrup said. Many applications the city received came from people with no relevant municipal experience, she said.
Training new clerks has taken time from preparing for the election, she said.
“When you’re kind of down to the wire getting ready for an election, you’re hoping to get somebody that’s experienced because they don’t have a lot of time to train,” Gooldrup said. “That’s where we fell.”
‘We were threatened’
Clerks with years of experience are leaving municipal work altogether because of heightened public tension following recent elections.
Heidi-Noel Grindle, who worked as the city clerk for Ellsworth near Acadia National Park for 15 years, left last November because of the stress of overseeing the election, harassment from members of the community and fear that any error could land the city on newspaper front pages.
Most people in the city treated the clerk’s office great, 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 “unnerving” situations. She recalled a man recording election workers while refusing to say why he was there. Grindle said she worried that she wouldn’t be able to find people to staff the city’s voting locations and the stress made her arms tingle at times. She now works in the private sector.
“It’s an environment that makes some people think twice about whether to engage in public service as an election worker,” said Secretary of State Bellows.
To alleviate some strain on election workers, the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association helped pass legislation this year that makes it a Class D misdemeanor when anyone “intentionally interferes by force, violence or intimidation” with an official running a federal, state or municipal election. Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill into law in April.
A critical element of the new law are requirements that the Secretary of State’s staff offers de-escalation training for clerks and training on how to report threats so the state can keep better data on violent incidents. The hope is the law will deter violent and threatening behavior.
Prior to the passage of the law, the clerk for Kittery, Karen Estee, described to the state Legislature the harassment her office had received.
“We were threatened, called voter suppressors, murderers and my favorite, Nazis,” Estee wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “Myself and my staff and all my other election workers work very, very hard for months to hold honest elections.”
Innocent errors and misinformation about the integrity of elections across the country has shifted the climate that clerks work in today, said Waterville City Clerk Patti Dubois, who has been a clerk for more than 20 years.
“Years ago, people maybe didn’t understand the process but it was easy to explain it, and you were a trusted official,” Dubois said. “Most people didn’t really question the election officials very much. They trusted they knew what they were doing and doing the right things.”
Some voters’ frustration and confusion with elections comes from the mail. Partisan and nonpartisan groups will often mail absentee ballot applications to residents, Dubois said. The clerk’s office will only mail one ballot to voters who return a completed absentee ballot request form, but residents who receive multiple applications sometimes fear that people will get multiple ballots, which they won’t.
Several people this year also received mail saying they needed to register to vote, even though they had signed up, she said. Dubois was able to verify voter registrations for the people who called but has no idea how many people didn’t call.
“We absolutely have the answers, but a lot of times they don’t come to us. They either just say it to their neighbors, or someone will call and say, ‘Well they told me that my ballot wasn’t going to count,’ ” Dubois said. “Well, who is ‘they?’ Who have you been talking to?’ “
Some voters just don’t like the state’s law, she said. Maine does not require voters to show ID at the polls. There is also a very specific process, outlined in state law, on how and when a clerk may remove a voter from the rolls, even when neighbors know a voter has moved, Dubois said. (It’s a Class C felony for a person to add, delete, alter or cancel information in the state’s central voter registration system if they have no right to change the information).
All of these rules are there to safeguard an election — not undermine it.
“The elections are run so technically and so precisely that I feel that they’re more secure now than they’ve ever been. Part of the problem, I think, across the country is that laws vary from state to state as far as early voting, mail voting, absentee voting, what the rules are around them, provisional ballots — people hear about something in another state and they assume that something similar is here, ” Dubois said.
“We can’t speak to what happens in other states, but I know that here in Maine, elections are completely secure.”