Election clerk Marge Dolby processes ballots at Windham Town Hall on Tuesday, the first day local election officials were allowed to do so. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

One in a frequent series of stories examining Maine’s election system.

Tuesday was the first day for some election officials in Maine to begin processing the record flood of absentee ballots they’ve received from voters for the 2020 election.

Propelled by a strong interest in the races and encouraged by health and election officials to use absentee and early voting systems as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Mainers and voters around the country are shattering records for early voting. Nationally, more than 60 million people have already voted and in Maine, as of Tuesday, more than 44 percent of the state’s 1.06 million registered voters had been issued an absentee ballot, and 37 percent, or 396,694 voters, have already turned their ballots back in.

An executive order by Gov. Janet Mills earlier this year allows local election officials, usually the town or city clerk, to begin processing absentee ballots up to seven days before the Nov. 3 election. Clerks usually are not allowed to start this process until four days before Election Day.

Here’s what you need to know about early ballot processing in Maine:

Does this mean they are already counting our votes?

Not exactly. Early processing of ballots entails several steps, but tallies or vote counts are not a part of that process. The data from absentee ballots is being collected but that data is kept under tight wraps until the polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day. The data from ballots that was processed early is then added to the data from ballots that are cast in-person on Election Day and totaled.

Sanford election workers process absentee ballots on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

What does early processing entail exactly?

Election clerks working in teams, which include an equal number of members from both major political parties, open the return envelopes that absentee ballots come in. They remove the folded ballots and stack them, still folded, in bins. Ballots are folded in a way that does not allow those removing them from the envelopes to see how anybody voted. The now empty return envelope, which is signed on the outside by the voter, is then attached to the voter’s absentee ballot application, and the voter is checked off from the voting rolls as having voted.

What happens to the folded ballots?

“After you have 25 to 50 folded ballots in a sorting bin, then they are removed, unfolded and flattened,” said Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo.  “This way, the workers have no idea which ballot came from which envelope, so the privacy of how the voter marked their ballot is maintained and protected.”

After this step, the ballots can then be fed into an optical scan voting machine, which digitally captures the voter’s selections and stores that data on a proprietary thumb drive device within the machine. Each machine has a separate encrypted memory device for absentee ballots that are processed early and ballots that are processed on Election Day. The memory device looks like a thumb drive but is very different from one in that the data on it cannot be accessed without the proprietary software that goes with it.

What happens to the ballots after they are scanned into the machine?

The ballots are stored in locked and sealed ballot boxes. Both the ballot boxes and the scanning machines are also kept locked in secured areas inside the clerk’s office and only the clerk or deputy clerk or their appointees have access to these areas.

Sanford City Clerk Sue Cote grabs a stack of absentee ballots to begin processing, but not tallying, on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

What does early processing look like in towns that don’t have scanning machines?

It’s a similar process. Ballots would be removed from envelopes, stacked and then stored securely for counting when the polls close on Election Day. The totals from the absentee ballots would then be added to the totals from the ballots cast on Election Day to reach a final result.

Are all municipalities processing absentee ballots early?

No. Not all towns have requested permission to process ballots early. But most of Maine’s largest cities – including Portland, Lewiston and Bangor – have. Some smaller towns and cities, like Sanford and Windham, also began processing ballots on Tuesday.

Are all towns going to take the full seven days to process absentee ballots?

No. The number of days towns request for processing absentee ballots varies. Lewiston, for example, has asked for just one extra day to process absentee ballots, while Windham has asked to use all seven.

Election clerk Connie LaBrecque processes absentee ballots at Windham Town Hall on Tuesday. The actual vote counting must wait until the polls close on Nov. 3. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

How will I know if my town is processing absentee ballots early?

Municipalities that are processing ballots early are required to give public notice of the dates they intend to do this. These are most commonly announced on the town or city clerk’s section of the municipality’s website.

Clerks also must allow for public observation of this process when requested.

What happens if someone shows up to vote on Election Day after having voted absentee?

When you vote by absentee ballot in Maine, your municipal clerk will take receipt of the ballot and verify that it can be accepted. Once they do so, they will mark your name in the voter system as “AV” for “absentee voter.” When they print out the incoming voter list just before Election Day, your name will already be “checked off” with the indicator marking that you have already voted via absentee ballot, and you will not be eligible to receive a ballot if you show up to vote in person.

What about for absentee ballots that are returned on Election Day?

On Election Day, some voters are still dropping off their absentee ballots and the town office is still receiving some by mail. Absentee ballots are processed in batches throughout the day and the list of those newly received absentee ballots is shared with each polling place for each batch, so if the absentee voter tries to vote in person, they will not be able to do so. Conversely, if they vote in person before their ballot arrives that day, their absentee ballot will be rejected when it is received.

Election clerk Donna Emerson processes ballots at Windham Town Hall on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

If I still have my absentee ballot on Election Day, should I bring it to my polling place?

Absentee ballots delivered on Election Day should be delivered to your town clerk’s office or to your town’s secure ballot drop box. This needs to happen before 8 p.m. for your ballot to be accepted. You also still need to seal your ballot in the return envelope and sign the back of the envelope before returning it.

How does ranked-choice voting factor into all of this?

In elections that call for ranked-choice voting, local election clerks will tally the first-choice winners only, from all the ballots cast.

If a candidate in a ranked-choice election does not reach more than 50 percent of the total first-choice votes cast, the race will be tabulated in elimination rounds, a process that is conducted centrally at the Secretary of State’s Office in Augusta.

To do this, the encrypted memory devices from all scanning machines are transported to Augusta by bonded couriers, and the data is then extracted.

When this work is complete, all the vote data is loaded into the results program on a computer that is not connected to the internet, and the ranked-choice voting tabulation software applies the rules, under Maine law, to determine the election result.

Sanford City Clerk Sue Cote processes absentee ballots Tuesday. Absentee ballots will be accepted until 8 p.m. on Election Day.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

And what about those towns without voting machines?

The ballots from those towns are transported to Augusta, again in locked and sealed ballot boxes, by bonded couriers. Those ballots are then fed into a high-speed scanning machine that digitally captures the data on the ballots and stores it on an encrypted memory device, just as the scanning machines at polling places do. That data is then extracted from the memory device and processed in the spreadsheet program along with the other ballot data to ensure every vote is counted.

Is this also a public process?

Yes. The tabulation of ranked-choice elections is done in a way so the media, candidates and/or their representatives and members of the public can observe the entire process. The final voting data files are also made publicly available on the Secretary of State’s website – so final results can be independently checked and verified.

Are there any other safeguards?

Yes. Because Maine’s election system relies on paper ballots, which are retained and stored in sealed lock boxes, officials can, if necessary, always go back to the original ballots filled out by voters to settle any disputes over results.

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