Requests for absentee ballots for the November elections are on pace to shatter all records for remote voting in Maine, despite widely reported concerns about U.S. Postal Service mail delays.

Close to 50,000 voters have already requested ballots through the state’s updated online request system, which went live on Monday, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said. In 2016, only 40,000 voters filed requests on the system during the entire election.

“So what we are seeing in requests already is totally unprecedented,” Dunlap said.

He expects 600,000 voters will cast absentee ballots, and a turnout in November of 75 percent. More than 200,000 voters requested ballots in the July 14 primary and more than 185,000 of those were returned.

Several city clerks around Maine said absentee ballot requests were outstripping anything they have seen.

Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin said the city has received over 2,000 ballot requests and was on pace for an absentee voter turnout of 70 percent.

In Auburn, City Clerk Susan Clements-Dallaire said she had seen 600 requests from the online system as of Wednesday and another 300 requests made by mail or phone. She said at this time in 2016, only 33 Auburn voters had requested absentee ballots.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said she was initially worried that voters were losing confidence in the U.S. Postal Service, but she believes the unprecedented demand for absentee ballots suggests they haven’t.

“Within 48 hours of the state flipping the switch we saw over 1,000 requests,” Montejo said.

Portland’s city clerk did not respond to questions about absentee ballot requests.

Dunlap recently held an online meeting with Gov. Janet Mills and a few clerks, including Goodwin and Montejo, to review lessons learned from the July primary and changes suggested by clerks. The discussion included whether the governor should lift the 50-person limit on public gatherings under the state’s COVID-19 guidelines, in case large numbers of people turn out at polling places on Nov. 3, or whether poll workers could be excluded from the 50-person count.

Montejo said in an email that Mills did not want to lift the 50-person limit at this time.

Mills’ office did not respond to a reporter’s questions about the meeting with clerks and Dunlap.

While ballots won’t be available until Oct. 3, voters can make their requests now and doing so will help to ensure a voter has plenty of time to receive, fill out and return their ballot.

Montejo said she is encouraging voters to sign up for the U.S. Postal Service’s informed delivery system, which emails customers a photo of their incoming mail when it is being processed, so they will be able to track when their ballot was sent from City Hall.

Several town and cities have installed secure drop boxes for absentee ballots. In October, many also will be offering extended in-person early absentee voting in which voters can cast their ballots at city hall before Election Day. The drop box program is being funded in part with federal CARES Act money, Dunlap said, noting that the state is using the funds to reimburse cities and towns up to $1,500 for installing a secure ballot drop box.

Dunlap is not yet sure how many drop boxes will be installed, but some of Maine’s largest cities are opting to put them in. Dunlap is drawing on $3.5 million in funds that were earmarked for elections during COVID-19. Some of that funding was used to set up polling places in July and provide personal protective equipment for polling place workers.

Goodwin, the Bangor clerk, said the city’s drop box was a comforting option for those worried about their ballot being lost in the mail.

“We have been fielding questions from our voters who are concerned with the mail,” Goodwin said. “Once we tell them that we have the drop box for their convenience they seem to be reassured. Many have expressed that they do not want to mail their ballots.”

Dunlap said election officials will continue to encourage voters to use absentee voting as way to avoid long waits on Election Day, and to also avoid exposure to COVID-19.

“You really don’t want to be standing in a long line with this thing,” Dunlap said citing a recent outbreak from a wedding reception in Millinocket that saw 32 people test positive for the virus. “I think that again proves how dangerous this is,” Dunlap said. “This is not a joke.”

Still he said Maine’s July primary showed that voting can take place safely in person and voting place precautions put in place – including facial coverings, Plexiglass screens, spacing and limits on the numbers of voters allowed in polling places at one time – proved effective with no election-related COVID-19 outbreaks.

‘That’s the good news,” Dunlap said. “We know now how to conduct a safe election.”

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