Tammy O’Donnell, left, and Eliza Porter, Cumberland’s town clerk and assistant clerk, show off the binders of absentee ballot requests they had received as of June 2. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

CUMBERLAND — With nearly two weeks to go before absentee ballots were even available for the July 14 election, Cumberland Town Clerk Tammy O’Donnell already had four binders packed with advance requests.

She and Eliza Porter, her assistant clerk, had already received 646 requests as of June 2, and she expected to reach 750 by the end of the week. That’s a marked rise from the approximately 100 O’Donnell had in advance of the March 3 special election, which ended up having 1,148 ballots cast.

But early March was a different time, too – before the coronavirus pandemic altered life on much of this planet, and forced many people to find ways of doing business without getting too close to each other.

“There are so many safety concerns with Election Day right now,” O’Donnell said. “We meet pretty much three times a week to go over all of the procedures that we need to put in place for Election Day.”

In offering in-person voting July 14, the town looks to implement several measures: 6-foot distancing between voters as they enter Town Hall, plexiglass shielding in front of the election clerks, dividers between seated workers, who will be masked and gloved as they practice social distancing, and plenty of hand sanitizer. Voting booths and tallying machines with touch screens will be cleaned after each use.

“Every time someone uses a pen … we’re just going to either give the pens to the people and say you can take them with you, or you can dispose of the pen,” O’Donnell said.

There could well be lines out the door, too, as people in line are kept spaced apart. Farther north in Brunswick, where voting is held at the junior high school, the 50-person, state-mandated cap on gatherings would include about 20 election workers, meaning that only 30 people at a time would be allowed in to vote, Town Clerk Fran Smith said.

“It’s just another reason … for people to consider the option of absentee voting this election,” Smith said.

Ballots can be requested by contacting Maine’s various town and city clerks.

Brunswick – which has received nearly 1,400 requests and has about 16,500 registered voters – already has a strong absentee turnout; more than half of the town’s voters cast ballots that way in the 2016 presidential election, “and that number will be considerably higher come November,” Smith projected.

The 1,400 figure is quite high for a spring primary, “but we expect a very high number of voters to absentee vote to avoid going to the polls on Election Day,” Smith said.

Once ballots become available – one month prior to Election Day – they will be mailed to those who request them.

To encourage people to mail their ballots back, Brunswick for the first time is providing return postage. “You won’t even have to worry about having a stamp, which has been a little more challenging … this election, for folks not getting out as much,” Smith said.

People can ask for an absentee ballot as late as July 14, which they’d have to do at the polls, but “we definitely encourage people to not wait until the last minute,” O’Donnell said. “Please try to request your ballot at least five days prior to the election.”

For those wanting to ensure their ballot makes it to Town Hall in time while saving the cost of a stamp, Cumberland has set up a dropbox outside the building, Porter said.

“We were the first town in the state to have the dropbox,” O’Donnell said, noting that state law allowing drop boxes was only established a year ago. “It’s a huge, huge change, and people love it.”

The town must have all ballots in hand by 8 p.m. the night of the election in order to count them. Ballots mailed into the office a day or two in advance might not make it in time.

“Every year, every election cycle, we have many, many ballots that come back after the election date,” O’Donnell said.

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