A push by Maine election officials to get more voters to cast absentee ballots as a way to protect against the spread of COVID-19 at polling places appears to be paying off.

Nearly 40,000 Maine voters have already requested ballots for the July 14 primary election, more than triple the number of requests made for the June 2016 primary, the last presidential election cycle.

Overall, requests are just above what they were for the last big primary election in 2018, when Republicans and Democrats selected their candidates in the state’s open governor’s race.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file photo

According to data published by Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s office, 38,594 voters have requested ballots for the upcoming primary, when Democrats will choose a candidate in a three-way race to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins. There were 11,582 requests at this point before the June 2016 primary and 35,982 requests at this time in 2018, state records show.

Republicans in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District will decide on a three-way race, selecting a challenger to take on incumbent Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat.

Democratic voters had made 29,949 of the ballot requests as of Tuesday, far outpacing Republicans, who had requested just 4,077 ballots, while 3,953 voters not enrolled in any party had requested ballots and 617 Green Party members had asked to vote absentee.

Dunlap, a Democrat, recently released a You Tube video in which he recommended that voters use the absentee voting process to protect themselves and polling place workers from exposure to the coronavirus.

“It’s a simple way to cast your vote from the safety of your own home,” Dunlap says in the video.

In-person voting will still be available, but polling place voting will likely involve physical distancing and other precautions, which could slow the process for voters. Voters can begin turning in their absentee ballots to their city or town clerks in person 30 days before the July 14 vote.

An executive order by Gov. Janet Mills in April pushed the June 9 primary election to July 14 in response to the pandemic. That order also waived the deadline for requesting and filing an absentee ballot until the day of the election. Typically the last day a voter in Maine can request an absentee ballot is the last Thursday before the Tuesday of the election.

Dunlap is advising voters who plan to mail in their ballots to do so at least seven days before the election to ensure they are received in time to be counted.

Local election officials, including city clerks, have voiced concerns about keeping voters and polling workers safe during the pandemic. Clerks have also expressed concerns about having enough polling place workers to safely and effectively conduct in-person voting as voting booths will have to be sanitized after each voter, among other precautions.

Portland city officials are currently contemplating consolidating 11 citywide polling locations down to three.

Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones said Monday that many of the city’s regular election workers are considered at high risk for COVID-19 exposure and they have told her they are unable or unwilling to staff the upcoming primary.

Maine’s second largest city, Lewiston, is also seeking to consolidate its regular polling places, from four to one. The city council there has backed that decision and is awaiting approval from Dunlap’s office, City Clerk Kathy Montejo said Tuesday.

“They know that we don’t really have a choice because two of our four regular locations are not available to us,” Montejo said. The city’s armory, usually a polling place, is being used as a homeless shelter because of the pandemic and another polling place, the Green Ladle, part of the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, is being used to make food for the Meals on Wheels program, which is seeing higher demand because of COVID-19.

President Trump and some of his Republican backers have been critical of using mail-in ballots for elections, claiming the method is ripe for fraud. But there has been little evidence of that.

Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington – already mail a ballot to all registered voters, and several others are considering whether to do that in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Ellen Weintraub, a member of the Federal Elections Commission, has countered the Republican assertions about fraud in mail-in voting, noting that Americans would be voting by mail in record numbers in 2020 because of the pandemic.

In a series of 66 tweets in late May, Weintraub pointed to dozens of reports, studies and investigations that showed voting by mail was safe, secure and fraud free.

“There’s simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud,” Weintraub tweeted. “None.”

Democrats in Maine have typically outpaced Republicans in the use of absentee ballots and in 2018 turned in about 6,000 more ballots than Republicans in the election that November. Democrats also have more registered voters – 381,446 compared to Republicans with 291,210.

The last time early voting surged dramatically in Maine was before the 2016 presidential election, when roughly 22 percent of all voters had cast their ballots by the week before the election.

Dunlap said Wednesday that he expects the number of ballot requests to increase in coming weeks before the July 14 vote, but said it was too early to tell if the state would break any records for absentee voting.

The League of Women Voters and AARP Maine are among the organizations joining the secretary of state in promoting absentee voting.

“They are all encouraging the use of absentee ballots, which has kind of gotten people’s attention and I suspect we will have a much higher than normal absentee participation because of that,” Dunlap said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.