AUGUSTA — Roughly one in five Republican voters in Maine’s largest towns left President Trump’s oval blank or wrote in another name during Tuesday’s presidential primary, an analysis of voting results shows.

Unlike Democratic voters in Maine, who could choose among 12 candidates listed on the ballot, Maine Republicans had only one official option for their party’s nominee during the Super Tuesday primary: Donald Trump.

But a review of election results from more than 25 of Maine’s largest towns and cities shows that 21 percent of Republican presidential primary ballots were recorded as blank. The higher-than-usual number of blank ballots – at least when compared with uncontested congressional or gubernatorial primaries in Maine – potentially raises questions about enthusiasm for Trump even within his own party in Maine.

“Twenty-five percent is a high number, yes,” said Fran Smith, town clerk in Brunswick, where 24.3 percent of Republican presidential ballots were recorded as blank. “I can’t say why people (left) it blank … and it’s not unusual when you have only one candidate to have a slightly higher percentage of people who leave it blank. But that struck me as a high number.”

Official statewide tallies from the primaries Tuesday will not be available for several weeks because the Maine Secretary of State’s Office has 20 days to compile results for certification. Yet results from Maine’s largest municipalities show anywhere from 11 to 32 percent of Republicans opted not to cast their presidential primary ballot for Trump.

Voter turnout figures broken down by party affiliation also won’t be available for weeks. It is clear, however, that Democrats voted in much higher numbers than Republicans because their party’s presidential nomination was still very much up for grabs headed into Super Tuesday.

Several clerks speculated that some Republicans were motivated to vote Tuesday more by the high-profile ballot question on school-required vaccinations than by the desire to participate in the party’s uncontested primary.

A Maine Republican Party official did not respond to a request for an interview about the high number of blank ballots cast in the Republican primary. However, on Tuesday party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas had issued a statement that said she was “proud to have our entire party behind (the president) with unprecedented unity.”

Likewise, the Trump campaign touted its numbers in Maine and elsewhere.

“The untold story of Super Tuesday is that President Trump shattered Republican turnout records in states across the nation,” Ken Farnaso, deputy press secretary for the Trump campaign, said in a statement. “We are seeing proof of the huge enthusiasm for President Trump in Maine, where he received the highest margin of support for any incumbent running for reelection since before President Reagan.”

Of course, since Trump faced no primary challengers in Maine, it wasn’t hard to achieve “the highest margin of support for any incumbent” since Reagan.

Additionally, there were no “authorized” write-in candidates in Maine’s Republican presidential primary, meaning any ballots on which voters wrote another name were officially recorded as blank.

But that didn’t stop some Republicans from writing in an alternative to the president, although Maine’s ballot-confidentiality laws prevent the media or the public from seeing those ballots.

Like other municipal officials interviewed, Kennebunk Town Clerk Merton Brown said he and other staff did not track specific write-in names because they are recorded as blank votes. Typically, staff won’t even handle a completed ballot because voters insert them into the scanning machines.

But Brown said he noticed more write-ins on the nearly 1,000 absentee ballots submitted to the town.

“There was certainly a pretty high percentage of people who did write in candidates,” Brown said.

Yarmouth had the highest proportion of blank votes in the Republican presidential primary – 32.1 percent – among 28 of the 30 largest towns in Maine followed by Cape Elizabeth at 31.5 percent at Portland at 28.7 percent.

With the exception of Orono, all of the towns with the 15 highest percentages of blank votes in the Republican primary were in the 1st Congressional District, which leans Democratic as a whole.

Trump lost the 1st District (as well as the statewide vote) to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but won the more rural and conservative 2nd Congressional District. So perhaps it’s not surprising that larger towns in the 2nd District – again, excluding the left-leaning college town of Orono – reported fewer blank votes than their counterparts to the south.

In Bangor, 18.2 percent of Republicans either opted not to check off Trump on the ballot or wrote in another name, while both Auburn and Presque Isle reported roughly 17 percent the ballots were blank. The lowest percentage of blank Republican ballots among the 28 towns was Lisbon, which Trump carried in 2016 with 56 percent of the vote.

By comparison, Brunswick reported only 46 blank ballots out of more than 5,500 cast – or 0.8 percent – in the Democratic presidential primary. In Lewiston, 2.7 percent of Democrats left their ballots blank or wrote in someone else, while 2.1 percent of Augusta’s Democratic ballots were recorded as blanks.

Two recent polls of Maine voters found high disapproval ratings for Trump: 60 percent in a Colby College survey and 56 percent in a Public Policy Polling survey. However, neither poll broke down those responses among Democrats and Republicans, and Republicans nationwide have given the president high approval ratings.

While it impossible to discern the intent of voters, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said blank ballots are a form of protest for some voters.

“This has a bit of history to it,” Dunlap said. “People will say they have a right to cast a blank vote.”

Town clerks said it is fairly common for voters to leave ballots blank, particularly in uncontested races. And while Maine’s use of presidential caucuses prior to 2020 makes an apples-to-apples comparison difficult, results from uncontested primary elections for governor and Congress shed some light on the trend.

Among the 11 uncontested primaries for Congress or governor in Maine between 2012 and 2018, the average number of blank ballots statewide for those years was 14.7 percent

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, had both the two lowest percentages – 9.3 and 9.4 percent – during those primaries but also the second highest at 18 percent. In June 2014, roughly 18 percent of Republican voters cast blank ballots during former Gov. Paul LePage’s uncontested primary as well.

“A lot of the time, if people don’t want to vote for someone, they leave it blank,” Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin said. “Sometimes, they don’t even want to take the ballot.”

Not taking a ballot, or not handing in all of your ballots, is not an option in Maine because municipal officials must match the number of ballots cast (even with blank votes) to the number of participating voters. Additionally, to prevent voter oversight, the optical scanning machines used by most towns will alert voters to the fact that they left a race empty and ask whether they want to re-do their ballot.

Cape Elizabeth Clerk Debra Lane said it appeared that many voters purposely cast blank ballots.

“Anecdotally, walking around the polling places … from time to time I would hear people say, ‘No, I’m good. That’s what I intended,'” Lane said.

 

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