Limestone is already gearing up for a divisive 2024 election

3 months ago

LIMESTONE, Maine – An Aroostook County town is taking steps to boost security at its town office ahead of what’s expected to be a divisive election in 2024.

Two nonprofits that meet in the Limestone town office will have to relocate to the former police station, adjacent to the town office but with its own entrance, officials said. 

Volunteers and staff from Limestone Chamber of Commerce and Limestone Development Foundation, including the fire chief, librarian and public works foreman, will no longer have office keys. Election materials will remain locked in a secure location, said Interim Town Manager Alan Mulherin.

The changes are an effort to improve election security in the office by limiting who can gain access to the building, Mulherin said. 

“There will be a lot of angry people [next November] and we need to be prepared for that,” Mulherin said. 

As the presidential race between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump grows more intense, Mulherin said he wants to ensure he and election clerks can safely monitor ballots and be protected from poll watchers if they become unruly. 

Voter fraud and poll watching remain rare in Maine. The only cases of voter fraud in Nov. 2020 involved two University of Maine students, one voting in two towns and the other on behalf of a former roommate. While poll watchers became more violent nationwide after former president Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud, Maine is still thought of as having some of the loosest poll watching laws. Municipalities must allow one watcher from each party to observe, and others if there is room.

Clerks across the state have been increasingly concerned about voters getting inaccurate information on social media. Those issues are likely to get worse during the presidential race between Biden and Trump, said Maine’s Secretary of State Shenna Bellows.

Bellows declined to comment on Limestone’s situation but said more towns will likely be taking extra precautions leading up to November 2024.

“We will be working with local clerks to ensure there’s a strict chain of custody and control of ballot boxes and tabulation machines. Those will be in secure locations and not open to public access,” Bellows said. “We appreciate towns being forward thinking in strengthening their security.”

Maine law allows people to observe elections as poll watchers but only if they do not interfere with election clerks’ duties or impede on residents’ right to vote, Bellows said. But the state is being more vigilant in helping officials protect ballots and clerks’ safety, given national trends.

A 2022 survey from the Brennan Center for Justice found that 1 in 6 election workers reported experiencing threats because of their job as an election official. Thirty-six percent said the 2020 election made them more concerned about people trying to interfere with the election process on behalf of their political party, compared to only 13 percent before 2020.

In contrast, only two Maine election officials reported harassment or threats last year, with only one being referred to law enforcement, resulting in no prosecution, according to Emily Cook, a Bellows spokesperson.

To help towns protect election workers, the Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions held training sessions for town clerks last fall that focused on de-escalation techniques and cybersecurity.

Limestone’s two town clerks attended one of the state’s election trainings several months ago, which inspired the idea to relocate the Chamber office and be more careful on who handles election ballots and materials, Mulherin said.