A relatively small number of voters will decide whether to expand Medicaid and approve a casino in York County in November, according to state and local election officials and a review of previous election year results.

In some towns, clerks are expecting voter turnout to be at 20 percent or less, especially if there are no local races, while in places like Portland and Lewiston, a higher turnout is anticipated because of hot-button local ballot questions or candidate races, such as those for mayor or City Council.

With no races for Congress, governor or the Legislature on the Nov. 7 ballot – except to fill a vacant seat in House District 56 – the biggest draw for Maine voters will either be local matters or a strong interest in the citizen-initiated ballot questions – building a casino in York County or expanding Medicaid.

But if 2017 ends up looking anything like 2011 – the last year voters had no statewide races to decide except ballot questions on casinos – then less than half of the state’s registered voters will cast ballots.

Absentee ballots could also be a factor in a low turnout election or a close vote, according to Michael Franz, a political science professor at Bowdoin College who studies voter behavior and campaign advertising, among other topics.

How big a role absentee voters play is uncertain, however. But supporters of Question 1, the casino measure, appear to be targeting absentee voters with a downloadable ballot request form taking up prime real estate on the home page of the campaign’s website. While an absentee ballot application can be requested from the Maine secretary of state or the town or city clerk in the municipality where a voter lives, those who download the form from the campaign site are also giving the campaign some basic information that would be available to the website’s operators through Google analytics. The data could include a general geographical location, a possible viewer’s age range, and a generic overview of the other types of information that viewer reads online.

Franz said campaigns generally push voters to cast their ballots early by absentee for a few different reasons.

“With these ballot questions, opinion on the issue can be variable, especially as ads come on the air for or against,” Franz wrote in an email message to the Press Herald. “People may have initial thoughts on the issue, but ads or media commentary that offer opposing views can have real effects for people whose opinions are not locked in – all the more so when the partisan element is not explicit. An early vote, then, is immune from later info that might compel people to change their minds.”

And while 95 percent of those who requested absentee ballots in 2011 returned them to successfully vote in the election, only about 8 percent of the ballots thus far requested have been returned. As of Oct. 10, town and city clerks around Maine, the state’s primary election officials, had issued 7,909 absentee ballots but only 668 had been returned. Those numbers, however, will likely steadily tick upward by the end of this week. In 2011, more than 63,000 valid ballots were cast by absentee voters. Voters have until Nov. 2 to request an absentee ballot and must return that ballot by 8 p.m. on Election Day for it to count.

Overall voter turnout in 2011 was 43 percent, as voters decided against two casino ballot questions – one for Lewiston and one for Biddeford – while they approved a people’s veto of a law that would have done away with the state’s same-day voter registration system.

Voters also approved a constitutional amendment that established new legislative districts for the state’s House of Representatives and Senate.

By comparison in 2016, when voters were selecting the next U.S. president, just under 73 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in Maine, the second highest turnout in the U.S.

This year voters will face four ballot questions, including the casino and Medicaid expansion, a proposed $105 million transportation bond package and a constitutional amendment aimed at shoring up the state employee pension system.

And while Maine regularly ranks among the top states for voter turnout, in an off-year election, the upshot, says Jim Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine at Farmington, is only the most motivated and disciplined voters are likely to turn out when there are no high-profile candidates like a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton drawing them to the polls.

But that also doesn’t necessarily mean voters will react the same way they did on similar issues in 2011, Melcher said.

“Low turnout elections are very unpredictable,” he said.

Supporters of the ballot question to expand the state’s Medicaid system will likely capitalize on all the media attention and Maine’s role in the failed efforts of congressional Republicans and President Trump to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, Melcher said.

He said the casino ballot measure doesn’t have the attention of a national spotlight or the passion of motivated supporters and opponents the way the health care issue does.

“There are motivators on both sides of that race and what has been going on in health care,” Melcher said. “Democrats are pretty charged up about health care, and when you are a party out of power, it can be easier to charge up your voters, although there may be some people on the Trump end of things also motivated on this issue.”

He said the casino vote, for those who have been paying attention, is less likely to split along partisan lines. And as voters have rejected previous casino efforts in other parts of the state, those regions that were unable to win a casino vote of their own may be more inclined to reject another bid for a casino in southern Maine, Melcher said. He also said that despite a blitz of television, radio and other advertising efforts by the casino backers that have carpeted Maine with roadside signs and filled mailboxes with brochures, “there’s very little buzz out there about this ballot question that I’m hearing.”

Beyond the lack of high-profile candidates on the ticket, other national and international news events in recent weeks – including North Korea, the Las Vegas massacre and the hurricanes that have ravaged the southern U.S. – have largely diverted the attention of the news media and with it the attention of voters. Melcher said that coupled with a president who is constantly making headlines and grabbing time in the nightly newscasts, voters may not be that focused on local or state issues. “Trump does tend to suck all the air out of the room frequently,” Melcher said.

Still, Franz said it’s highly unlikely to see turnout approaching that of a presidential election year, “although some local issues could certainly galvanize the public even in an off-year.”

There are a number of high-profile issues and local races that may drive turnout in some parts of Maine. In Lewiston and Auburn, the state’s second-largest population base, voters are being asked to settle the controversial local issue of merging the two cities into one city government. Both cities also face open mayoral elections that have multiple candidates. In Portland, the state’s largest city, local ballot measures on rent control and public school renovations, along with elections for City Council, may also draw a large number of voters to the polls.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said she expects voter turnout to be somewhere around 70 percent, largely because of the consolidation vote.

But in Bangor, the state’s third largest city, a City Council race that has six candidates seeking three open seats and what appears to be a largely uncontested school committee race with three candidates seeking three seats, City Clerk Lisa Goodwin expects voter turnout to hover around only 18 to 20 percent. That is typical for off-year elections, Goodwin said.

In Augusta, City Clerk Roberta Fogg said she expects voter turnout will hover around 25 percent this year, also typical for that city in an off-year election.

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