Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order on Thursday giving municipal clerks more time to process absentee ballots ahead of the November election while also imposing coronavirus-related capacity restrictions on polling places.

The order also gives Maine residents an additional six days to register to vote by mail and extends the window for casting an in-person absentee ballot prior to the Nov. 3 elections.

State election officials are anticipating that a record number of votes will be cast by absentee ballot this fall because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The temporary changes announced by Mills on Thursday focus on the absentee balloting process, as well as the safety precautions needed to protect both in-person voters and poll workers on Election Day.

The executive order’s provisions:
Give Maine residents until Oct. 19, rather than Oct. 13, to register to vote by mail or by third-person. In-person registration will still be allowed on Election Day.
Allow local election officials to begin counting absentee ballots seven days before the election, up from the four days now allowed under law.
Provide an extra day for voters to cast absentee ballots in person at their polling place prior to Nov. 3, setting the deadline at 5 p.m. two business days before Election Day.
Place a limit of 50 people inside a single polling place at any given time or “such lesser number as allows sufficient space to meet the 6-foot physical distancing requirement between persons.”
Require signage and ground lines marking 6-foot distances between those standing in line to vote, including outside the polling place.
Suspend the requirement that polling places provide at least one voting booth for every 200 registered voters if it would lead to crowding or booths spaced less than 6 feet apart.

Mills also authorized Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to implement the order with guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democratic process, and I take seriously our responsibility to ensure that every Maine person has the opportunity to cast their ballot and to do so in a way that protects their health and safety during this ongoing pandemic,” Mills said in a statement. “The steps taken in this executive order are prudent measures that will facilitate access to voting while protecting the health of voters, poll workers and election officials.”

In Maine, voters can cast an absentee ballot – whether by mail, in person or by depositing it in a secure drop-box – for any reason. The number of people utilizing absentee balloting, which is sometimes referred to as “early voting,” has grown dramatically in recent years, and the health threat posed by COVID-19 is expected to drive a record number of requests this fall.

Dunlap has said that he expects 600,000 of Maine’s roughly 1 million registered voters to cast their ballots via the absentee process this year. That compares to roughly one-quarter of Maine voters requesting absentee ballots during the 2016 presidential election.

About 185,000 Mainers submitted absentee ballots during July 14 primary elections, providing both voters and municipal clerks with an early test of voting during the coronavirus pandemic. But if past presidential elections are any indication, as much as 75 percent of Maine’s registered voters are expected to participate in the Nov. 3 elections.

Nearly 50,000 people requested ballots through the state’s online request system within the first few days of it going live, eclipsing the 40,000 online requests received four years ago, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Mail-in voting has become a political issue nationally, driven largely by President Trump’s wholly unsubstantiated claims of widespread problems or fraud with the practice. While a handful of states were already mailing all ballots to voters automatically, dozens more are following suit this election because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Maine, voters must formally request an absentee ballot.

Mills’ executive order also seeks to give local election officials more flexibility regarding the administrative challenges of running an election during a pandemic.

For instance, local officials who want to consolidate polling locations must normally hold a public hearing no less than 90 days before the election. Mills’ executive order shortens that window to 30 days while creating the opportunity for remote hearings rather than in-person gatherings.

Additionally, Mills suspended the requirement that election clerks must live in the municipality or the county where they plan to work on Election Day. Clerks can now come from abutting counties as well, a change that the Mills administration said was needed to address potential shortages at some polling locations.

The virus also has created challenges at the local level when it comes to school budgets. Mills’ executive order allows school budgets for the 2020-21 year to be approved by referendum vote rather than through the town meeting process required in some localities.

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