Election clerk Alicia Harding, 79, sits outside Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall and reads “The Best of Science and Nature Writing” while waiting for voters. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

Turnout was light at the polls Tuesday as voters cast ballots in a primary election that was delayed by more than a month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But a big part of the reason for the low turnout was a record number of early voting and absentee ballots. And that could delay election results from being reported in some communities.

More than 200,000 Maine voters requested absentee ballots, a move encouraged by state and local election officials, as well as health experts, to minimize crowds gathering at polling stations and help avoid spreading the highly contagious coronavirus.

Soon after the polls closed at 8 p.m., Portland officials said that they did not expect to have full results available this evening because of the high volume of absentee ballots, many of which still have to be counted.

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said nearly 18,000 absentee ballots were requested. Staff began processing them over the weekend, but many of those ballots arrived over the last two days and were being tabulated Tuesday. One city official said there were still dozens of boxes filled with ballots on Tuesday night, and each box can take two hours to process.

Democrats statewide decided a three-way race in which Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon earned roughly 70 percent of the vote in a contest against attorney Bre Kidman and progressive activist Betsy Sweet for the opportunity to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

Republicans in the state’s 2nd Congressional District were choosing among three potential challengers to incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden. The race appeared to be headed for a ranked-choice runoff after former state Rep. Dale Crafts grabbed roughly 45 percent of the vote, Adrienne Bennett, who served as press secretary for former Gov. Paul LePage, got 33 percent, and former state Sen. Eric Brakey received 22 percent.

Voters also passed a pair of state bond questions for highway construction and broadband expansion, while most local school districts also had their annual budgets on the ballot for voter ratification.

The election was supposed to be held June 9, but Gov. Janet Mills postponed it by five weeks because of concerns about spreading the coronavirus.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who was visiting polling stations in Portland, Lewiston, Bangor, Old Town and Ellsworth, said in-person turnout statewide was light with few exceptions.

But he also said the state could be on pace for a higher than usual primary turnout overall. More people have been made aware of the election, he said, because of the pandemic and reporting around absentee ballots. Overall voter participation may reach as high as 30 percent of all registered voters, he said. “But at least two thirds of that will be by absentee.”

Westbrook poll workers sit behind clear plastic barriers while waiting for voters to arrive at the Fred C. Westcott School on Tuesday. City Clerk Angela Holmes said voter turnout at the polls was light by midday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

There had been no major problems at the state’s more than 500 polling locations as of midafternoon, Dunlap said. Only a few municipalities were concerned they might run out of ballots because some voters requested absentee ballots, didn’t use them, and then showed up to vote in person.

In Portland, nearly 18,000 residents voted by absentee ballot. That is already more than the 15,447 people who voted in Portland in the 2018 primary election.

Voters fill out ballots at the Troubh Ice Arena in Portland on Tuesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Portland Exposition Building is being used an a temporary shelter during the pandemic, so the regular polling place for the surrounding neighborhood had moved to the neighboring Troubh Ice Arena. Just five people waited at the door when the polling place opened at 8 a.m.. Three hours later only 80 people had cast ballots in person.

Warden Susan Maataoui said she expected turnout to remain low throughout the day because so many people used absentee ballots. As she stood in the lobby of the ice arena, a woman entered with four envelopes in her hand and asked about returning absentee ballots. A worker directed her to City Hall.

“We’re here,” Maataoui said. “We’re set up to make sure this is as safe as possible.”

The polling place looked different than a typical election, not just because the location changed this year. Every worker wore a mask and a face shield. The floor was marked with red tape so voters could maintain physical distancing. Only four voters were allowed to work on their ballots at one time, and caution tape blocked off some booths so people didn’t stand too close together.

Mitch Ledford walks to a voting machine to put in his ballot after voting at Portland’s Reiche school on Tuesday. Dennis Martin, the election warden for the site, said it appeared to be one of the least busy in-person voting days in the last five elections, with many people voting absentee. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But election workers said the low turnout meant those guidelines had not yet created long lines.

“If we had the kind of crowds we had in ’18, there would be a problem,” said Harlan Baker, who has worked the polling place for years and manned the front door on Tuesday.

Maataoui said she was proud of the work the city and her team had done so far on the primary. But she worried about the general election, when turnout will be much larger.

“November is top of mind,” she said.

Liz Albert, a deputy registrar, sits behind a plastic barrier Tuesday at the Italian Heritage Center in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At Deering High School, poll warden Barbara Harvey said voters so far were adapting seamlessly with the tweaks to voting procedure brought by the virus.

Large, clear plastic screens separated check-in workers from the public, and a worker wiped down the fold-out kiosks after every use. Turnout was  spare, she said, about 85 people as of about 11 a.m.

The low-key atmosphere helped ease the training of new poll workers, many of whom signed up after the city raised the alarm of a worker shortage caused by the virus. Harvey was training a new warden Tuesday.

“We’ll need all hands on deck come November,” she said.

Most voters have not raised any complaints about the new voting protocols, except for one rite of voting deemed too problematic in light of social distancing restriction.

“The biggest complaint is that we don’t have an ‘I voted’ sticker,” Harvey said.

Spaced out in every other voting booth, Kennebunk residents cast their ballots in the Town Hall auditorium on Tuesday. In addition to the primary races, Kennebunk had town bond questions and school district funding questions. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Voter Joe Wolfberg, 82, said he tried to order his absentee ballot, but it never came in the mail, so he decided to vote in person. Wearing a white mask and hat, Wolfberg said he felt comfortable voting in person while taking necessary precautions. But he said people are too cavalier, even in Maine, where the daily virus count has shrunk steadily.

“These times are different than any other times this country has seen,” Wolfberg said. “And it’s not going to end any time soon.”

The vote count at the Italian Heritage Center was also low – about 107 ballots cast as of 11:30 a.m. The polling site was set up on one of the venue’s large dining rooms, where there was ample space for the steady stream of voters to maintain social distance.

“Today’s not a big deal, but November is going to be full,” warden Dale Kinney said. “It will be tricky, but doable. Some polling locations are quite small.”

Election clerk Dana Wilfahrt, right, wipes a voting booth clean while Caesar Napolitano votes Tuesday morning at Merrill Auditorium. Michele McDonald

In-person voting appeared to be heavier elsewhere in the state. In Lewiston, the flow of voters was steady but manageable, City Clerk Kathy Montejo said.

Lewiston, which combined all of its wards into one location at the Longley Elementary School, saw about 550 in-person voters by midday.

“It’s not so busy that we are overwhelmed, but it’s also not so slow that the workers are bored,” Montejo said. “It’s a nice flow so far, which is great.”

She and other clerks around the state also were busy processing the historic wave of absentee ballots, which could be returned until the polls close at 8 p.m.

Paul Beland of Lewiston said had contemplated voting absentee, but was working from home and had time to vote in person, so he did. “I felt it was my duty to vote,” Beland said. “A couple of the local bond issues were a big thing for me, too, and I’m pretty strongly in favor of Sara Gideon and wanted to vote for her.”

Auburn voter Michael Hynes said he felt safe voting Tuesday and wanted to make sure his ballot got counted. “There’s always a chance that something could go wrong, so this way I knew for sure my ballot was going in,” he said.

There were no lines just after 12:30 p.m. at Portland’s Reiche school. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Joseph Roman of Auburn, an unenrolled voter, said even though he had no primary candidates to pick he felt it was his responsibility to vote on the local school budget and state bond issues.

“I wanted to make sure that I had voted today,” Roman said. He said the polling space was well organized.

Carter Ross, a Bates College senior, said a confluence of national events drove him to the polls.

“Just with everything that’s been going on, I’m more socially involved right now,” Ross said. “I think it’s more important than ever to vote and to try to vote for people who are going to make meaningful changes.”

Ross was impressed with the organization of the polling station during the pandemic. “They had things pretty dialed in,” he said.

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