Voter turnout was higher than expected across Maine on Tuesday, driven largely by interest in the referendum question to expand Medicaid.

Question 2, which asked voters whether they favor expanding government-funded health care for low-income Mainers, seemed to be the driving force for many residents across southern Maine.

“I think expanding MaineCare is very important,” said Deborah Smith of Freeport. “The burden is being carried by the middle class and the poor, and I don’t think you balance the budget on the backs of those people.”

Catharine Chase, 71, of Brunswick said she votes no matter what, but was particularly motivated to vote yes on Question 2.

“It sounds sort of obvious, but I think we should be providing health care to as many people as we can,” she said.

Other issues were driving voters as well, particularly in places like Portland, which had several local issues on the ballot. Voters there weighed questions on establishing rent limits, zoning reform and whether to renovate the city’s four elementary schools.

About 17,000 people voted in Portland, a turnout of 30 percent. Voters poured into the Reiche Elementary School polling place after work Tuesday evening, forming a line that at times stretched from registration tables inside the gym through the door leading into the gym and into an outer hallway.

“It has been very steady all day,” said Reiche election warden, Marianne O’Malley Sampson. “We had a line out the door when we opened this morning at 7 o’clock.”

Sampson, who has served as warden for eight years, said the steady rush of voters continued throughout the day with slight downturn between 2 and 4 p.m.

She estimated that more than 1,500 ballots had been cast as of 5:30 p.m.

“For an off-year election, that is a lot of ballots,” she said.

Sampson said the diverse range of questions posed to voters, including the city’s school bond referendum, is what drew so many voters to the polls.

Landis Gabel, an economics professor, moved to Portland from France last summer. Two issues brought him to Reiche on Tuesday night. One was the opportunity to cast a vote on Portland’s proposed rent-control ordinance, but Gabel also came to the polls for another reason. After voting, he spent his evening collecting signatures for the people’s veto to restore ranked-choice voting. “That’s my big issue,” said Gabel, who has a problem with candidates who get elected with less than a majority vote.

TURNOUT EXCEEDS EXPECTATIONS

In addition to Medicaid expansion, voters statewide were considering referendums on a casino in York Country, a $102 million transportation bond and a constitutional amendment dealing with changes to state employee pensions.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap spent the day visiting polling places and stopped in Portland shortly before noon. He agreed that turnout seemed to be higher than expected for an off-year election in which there are no statewide or national candidates on the ballot.

“Things have been smooth and quiet so far,” he said.

Late last week, there was fear that the widespread power outages might lead to problems, but Dunlap said Maine’s utility companies worked hard to ensure all municipal offices had power by the end of the day Monday.

Nearly 400 people had voted in Harpswell by 1:30 pm., a stronger than usual turnout for an off-year election. Longtime resident Ruth Weeks partly attributed the steady stream of voters to people’s desire to socialize after spending a week cooped up in their homes without power. Her own power came back on at 7 p.m. Monday.

“People just want to get out,” she said.

Early voting data from the secretary of state’s office showed slightly more than 52,000 people cast ballots ahead of Election Day. Registered Democrats accounted for nearly half, 25,719, and more than twice the number of Republicans who voted early, 12,660, which could be reflective of interest in Question 2. Democrats have been far more supportive of Medicaid expansion than Republicans.

In Buxton, which had no local ballot this year, 845 people had voted by midafternoon, a high number for this type of election, Town Clerk John Myers said.

He said people were waiting to vote when the doors were unlocked at 6 a.m. Twenty people voted in the first 20 minutes.

“I was happy. It’s a lot of work and when the turnout is better it’s even more gratifying,” he said.

PASSIONATE ABOUT QUESTION 1

Buxton resident Elaine Arsenault stopped by Town Hall to vote during a midafternoon lull. A few residents filled out ballots and another waited to get a flu shot.

Arsenault said she had one reason for voting: opposition to Question 1, the casino proposal.

“I don’t think we need another casino,” she said. “Two is enough.”

Stuart Steinberg of Freeport said he was most passionate about Question 1 as well.

“I hate the casinos. I think they’re terrible,” he said. “They’re just so lame. I think the casinos are a total scam.”

Election workers at the polling place inside Freeport High School’s gymnasium said foot traffic was surprisingly steady Tuesday for an off-year election.

At the Boys and Girls Club on Broadway in South Portland, voting was steady during the first two hours the polling place was open, said Phil Gaven, the warden for the city’s District 1.

Several people leaving the club said the issue most important to them was Question 2.

Emily Newburn, a therapist, said she favors expansion because of people with mental-health issues who aren’t getting adequate treatment either because they don’t have health insurance or can’t afford out-of-pocket costs.

Thea Johnson, a professor at the University of Maine Law School, said she supports expanding Medicaid to more people because “it’s the right thing to do.”

As voters left the Boys and Girls Club, which serves the east end of the city, they had the chance to sign petitions for various future ballot initiatives. A steady stream of people lined up to sign one in favor of a “people’s veto” of a law recently passed by the Legislature that delays until 2021 implementation of ranked-choice voting in Maine, which was approved by voters last November.

Danielle Dalton of Buxton was at a Portland polling location at Merrill Auditorium to collect signatures for a ballot initiative to fund in-home care for seniors and the disabled as an alternative to nursing facilities, and provide better pay for in-home caregivers.

REFERENDUM FATIGUE, FRUSTRATION

Around the state, voters would get to decide races for town councils, select boards and school boards, as well as local referendums.

One local issue that will be watched closely is an effort to merge the cities of Lewiston and Auburn, a contentious topic that has been hotly debated for months.

Among some voters, there was a sense of fatigue around referendums.

Chase, the Brunswick resident who voted for Medicaid expansion, said she’s frustrated to think that even if the referendum passes, lawmakers may intercede.

Last year, voters approved four referendum questions but two of them have been overturned by the Legislature – a tax increase on high earners and the effort to implement ranked-choice voting. The other two referendums – increasing the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana – also have been altered or delayed.

“I guess I don’t agree with this idea that voters can approve something and lawmakers can turn right around and change it,” she said.

Dunlap said he understands voter frustration about changes to referendums after they pass, but said lawmakers have always had that power.

Staff photographer Ben McCanna, online producers Christian Milneil and Carol Semple, and staff writers Gillian Graham, Ray Routhier, Peter McGuire, J. Craig Anderson and Glenn Jordan contributed to this story.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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