March 4, 2010

Speculation centers on early votingMAINE/NEW ENGLAND

EDWARD D

— By . MURPHY

Staff Writer

The fall election season is in full swing, and so is the voting.

Mainers could begin casting absentee ballots last week for Nov. 3 elections, and if the past few elections are any indication, quite a few will.

In 2008, about 150,000 Mainers, out of about 1 million registered voters, filled out ballots before Election Day, said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. That was double the number who voted absentee in 2000.

In some towns, more voters cast ballots ahead of time than on Election Day.

In Scarborough, for instance, 52 percent of the ballots were already in by the time the polls opened on Nov. 4 last year. And there was a clear split on a local issue: The majority of those voting before Election Day opposed slot machines at the Scarborough Downs racetrack, while a majority of those who voted on Election Day favored slots.

Dennis Bailey, who owns the public relations firm Savvy and led the successful anti-slots effort, said his side was aware that a big contingent of voters would cast ballots in September and October.

''You just have to plug that into the planning process'' because more voters are taking advantage of absentee ballots, even if they have no plans to be out of town on Election Day, he said.

Bailey said the conventional wisdom in politics has been to hold off on heavy advertising until the last couple weeks of the campaign, so voters have your side's message in mind as they head into the voting booth. That's no longer a wise choice, he said.

''Under the old ways of doing things, half the voting could be in before you've started,'' Bailey said, noting that the anti-slots campaign started running ads before a campaign normally would, to reach absentee voters.

Phone banks were also up and running earlier than normal, trying to reach supporters, he said.

''There is a day when suddenly you can start voting, so we wanted to get that message out early,'' he said. ''It can make the media campaign a lot longer and a lot more expensive.''

That's the opposite of what most voters say they want, but the voters are creating those longer campaigns by voting before Election Day, said Michael Franz, an assistant professor of government at Bowdoin College.

Franz said the trend is relatively new, so he doesn't know of a lot of research on it, but preliminary studies suggest that voters who cast ballots before Election Day tend to be the most partisan.

For instance, Democratic voters appeared to turn out for absentee voting in 2008, reflecting that party's enthusiasm for Barack Obama.

Beyond that, there's no conclusive research suggesting that any particular segments of voters tend to cast ballots ahead of time, he said, and absentee voting doesn't appear to increase turnout.

It has increased the importance and length of get-out-the-vote efforts, which used to be concentrated into one day, Franz said.

''Instead of Election Day being the day you get people out to vote, now you try to get people out to vote all the time,'' he said.

Issue campaigns, he said, tend to attract passionate supporters and opponents, who act like partisans by voting early, he said. So this year's gay-marriage referendum is likely to draw both sides out to vote before Nov. 3, he said, and there's no indication that would give either side an advantage.

About the only thing that would likely slow the trend toward absentee voting is some kind of scandal or major turn in a campaign's last few days that would make voters regret casting ballots ahead of time, Franz said. But, he noted, it hasn't been unheard-of for voters to regret their decisions a few weeks after Election Day.

Dunlap said he would like to see Maine adopt true early voting, but that would take a change to the Maine Constitution.

Readfield, Portland and Bangor had early voting in 2008 under a pilot program, he said, and four towns, including Scarborough, have applied to be part of the pilot project for this year's election.

In early voting, a voter goes to the town or city hall, gets a ballot and fills it out, then runs it through a vote-counting machine.

An absentee voter completes the ballot, puts it in a signed and sealed envelope, then submits it to the town or city. The ballot isn't opened or counted until Election Day.

Early voting would begin just 10 days before the election, much less than the maximum of 45 days for absentee voting, yet voters could still cast ballots with shorter or non-existent lines.

Tom Hall, Scarborough's town manager, said early voting makes it easier for residents to vote, and that makes it attractive for his town.

''I think it's really the wave of the future,'' Hall said. ''If we can remove as many of those barriers (to voting) as possible, it makes for the best possible solution all the way around.''

Dunlap said his office is reviewing the applications from Scarborough, Readfield, Standish and Cumberland, mostly to make sure their plans for securing cast ballots are adequate.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.comDennis Bailey said the conventional wisdom in politics has been to hold off on heavy advertising until the last couple weeks of the campaign, so voters have your side's message in mind as they head into the voting booth. That's no longer a wise choice, he said.

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