Mainers are setting early voting records for a governor’s election, with 34 percent more absentee ballots submitted so far this year than in 2014, contributing to a projected turnout of 65 percent.

Democrats continue to outpace Republicans in absentee voting, with 61,792 ballots returned as of Thursday, or 18 percent of all registered Democrats, the Secretary of State’s Office said. Among Republicans, 40,408 absentee ballots were returned, or just over 14 percent of party members. Unenrolled voters, who make up the largest single voting bloc in Maine, had turned in 35,565 ballots, or 9 percent of all voters not belonging to a party.

Overall, about 140,000 voters had returned absentee ballots to their local election officials. Another 47,000 ballots that were requested have yet to be returned. At this point in 2014, about 105,000 absentee ballots had been returned.

Absentee voting hit its peak in 2016, a presidential election year in which almost 190,000 absentee ballots were cast in Maine.

Voters had until the close of business Thursday to pick up absentee ballots and until 8 p.m. on Election Day to turn them in. City clerks were urging those who picked up ballots Thursday to return them in person, as mailed ballots may not arrive before polls close Tuesday. No absentee ballots will be available after Thursday unless a voter can show an extreme hardship exists.

Some municipalities kept their doors open Thursday to give voters a chance to fill out their ballots early. Portland City Hall, for example, stayed open until 7 p.m. for early absentee voting.

Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones said absentee voting at City Hall was more brisk in the last few days, and the numbers show that more than half of all absentee ballots returned statewide have come back since Oct. 24.

Jones said participation by voters has steadily grown since Maine switched several years ago to “no-excuse” absentee voting, in which voters don’t have to give a reason for requesting a ballot. “The numbers just get higher every year,” she said.

Jones said that more and more candidates are urging people to request absentee ballots, which can help their campaigns focus on voters who they know haven’t asked for a ballot and may still be considering their decision.

Some of the state’s larger cities and towns will begin to process absentee ballots before Tuesday, but no tallying of votes can be done until after 8 p.m. on Election Day, Jones said.

The 1st Congressional District outpaced the state’s more rural 2nd District in absentee voting, with 86,450 early ballots compared to 53,187. Democrats outpaced Republicans in both districts.

Democrats have traditionally outpaced Republicans in early voting in Maine, but Democrats also have a larger number of registered voters – 340,122 compared with 281,754 Republicans. There are 358,734 unenrolled Maine voters, making up close to 35 percent of the state’s total of 1,028,602 registered voters. The Green Independent Party and Libertarian Party recorded 42,438 and 5,554 voters, respectively.

Republicans won the governor’s office in 2010 and 2014 despite being outpaced by Democrats in absentee voting. In 2016, Democrats again bested Republicans in absentee balloting, but Republicans won the presidential vote and the U.S. House seat in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.

Maine is one of 27 states that allow absentee balloting by mail. Because each state has its own rules for voter registration and ballot access, it’s difficult to compare early voting trends among states.

Some of the voters turning in absentee ballots in Portland and South Portland on Wednesday said they already had made up their minds and had time to get their voting over with so they were doing just that.

Kyle Brundige of Portland, said it was easier for him to get his ballot in early than to figure it out next week. Brundige said he found voting simple and knew that he would be using the ranked-choice voting system in the two federal races on the ballot this year, while he would be selecting only one candidate in the state races.

Both Brundige and South Portland City Councilor Sue Henderson said they wished they could have ranked the candidates in the governor’s race, but that didn’t deter them from making a top pick.

“I think that’s what voters originally wanted (was ranked-choice voting for the governor’s race),” Brundige said.

Henderson, who was turning in her absentee ballot early for the first time said she found the process convenient and easy.

“I liked that,” she said.

South Portland City Clerk Emily Scully said voters were relatively well-informed about the process and that the number turning in ballots before Election Day was up significantly from 2014. As of Wednesday 4,197 South Portland voters had returned their ballots, compared to a total of 3,114 that turned in ballots early in 2014.

“This is the highest turnout for a gubernatorial election for absentee voting that we have seen,” she said.

A local referendum that would change the city’s short-term rental ordinances has fueled intense debate in the city, but Scully wasn’t sure if that or some other factor was driving absentee voting.

“It’s really hard to say, and, of course, we don’t ask,” she said.

Absentee voting also was up in some of Maine’s smaller cities and towns, including Westbrook and Waterboro.

As of Wednesday, Waterboro Deputy Town Clerk Christine Torno said just over 1,200 absentee ballots had been requested – more than double the number from the 2016 presidential election.

She said the town encouraged residents to vote by absentee ballot in part because this year’s polling place in the town office is smaller than years past. Still, she predicts she could see nearly 80 percent turnout based on the absentee requests so far.

“It will be a late night,” Torno said.

Westbrook City Clerk Angela Holmes said her staff would start processing ballots on Saturday and Monday. As of Wednesday, the city had received more than 2,700 absentee ballot requests. During the last gubernatorial election, fewer than 1,600 people requested absentee ballots. Westbrook has nearly 13,500 registered voters, which is more than it had during the June primary. Holmes said one-third of Westbrook ballots typically come in early.

“A lot of people who have commented on it have talked about how convenient it is,” she said. “There are so many options that there’s no excuse to not vote if you want to vote.”

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap expects overall voter turnout to hit 65 percent. Turnout for the last election of a governor in 2014 was 58.5 percent.

Staff Writers Christian MilNeil and Megan Doyle contributed to this report.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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