Many Mainers opted to vote early or by absentee ballot, but that didn’t stop others from heading to the polls in large numbers Tuesday to cast ballots in hotly contested races for president, a U.S. Senate seat, and other statewide and local contests that will help shape the political landscape over the coming years.

A record number of Mainers voted ahead of Election Day, with about 500,000 – close to half the number of registered voters in the state – sending in their ballots by mail or dropping them off in collection boxes or at town offices around the state.

The state allows voters to cast their ballots early under an any-reason absentee system, but most polling places still had lines Tuesday with voters queuing up in the early morning cold to cast ballots in person.

A long line forms outside Thornton Academy in Saco prior to the polls opening on Election Day Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

One reason for the lines was social distancing rules, with election clerks asking voters to maintain at least 6 feet between them and other voters due to the coronavirus pandemic. Plastic screens and face masks on polls workers were another sign that the election was taking place amid a pandemic. While voters were asked to wear face masks, officials had determined that it would not be a requirement for voters.

Most polling places also featured sanitizing stations to allow voters to disinfect their hands while at the polling place and imposed limits on the number of people who could be inside at any one time. In addition, voters were issued a pen along with their ballot and were asked to drop the pen in a box for sanitizing after use.

Election observers said most voters followed the new procedures, including the social distancing and mask-wearing requests.

The pandemic emerged as a key concern to Mainers casting ballots Tuesday with more than 40 percent of those who responded to a national survey saying the coronavirus pandemic is the most important issue facing the country.

Additionally, 60 percent of Maine participants in the Associated Press’s national VoteCast survey disapproved of President Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, while 69 percent approved of how Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has responded to the crisis.

The results from Maine appear to mirror the national sentiment, at least when it comes to the top concerns on voters’ minds as they headed to the polls on Tuesday or were awaiting results after casting their ballots early.

STRONG TURNOUT EARLY AND LATE: Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who toured polling places around the state on Tuesday, said the turnout might end up being a record for Maine, with more than 70 percent of eligible voters casting ballots, although it will be several days before final numbers are available. Dunlap said lines during the morning were a common feature and, although the lines diminished at some polling places around midday, he expected another rush of voters later in the day.

“It has been busy everywhere,” Dunlap said in Portland late Tuesday morning, when he predicted that the number of voters would eclipse the number that voted in 2016, when 70 percent of Maine voters heading to the polls.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap talks to reporters outside a polling location at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Tuesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We will be north of that,” Dunlap said. Maine’s turnout was about equal to New Hampshire four years ago and both states trailed only Minnesota in turnout.

There have been no reports of voter intimidation or interference from any polling station or the more than 80 election observers from the League of Women Voters, Dunlap said.

If there is a closely contested race that must be decided by ranked-choice voting, the state could start collecting ballot records by Thursday and start tabulating votes by Friday, but it is unclear how long that tabulation would take, Dunlap said.

People enter their ballots in voting machines at Biddeford High School on Election Day Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

NO COMPLAINTS IN BIDDEFORD: In Biddeford, there were lines to vote at Biddeford High School most of the day even though half of the city’s 16,064 registered voters had requested and returned absentee ballots before Election Day.

“This is the other half,” Biddeford City Clerk Carmen Morris said of the voters waiting to cast ballots in person.

At 4 p.m., nine hours after the polls opened, the line to vote stretched nearly to Main Street, including roughly 200 voters.

“This is much heavier than normal,” Morris said of the turnout. “But the people have been great. They’re standing in the cold, but not complaining.”

Morris said that when the polls closed, a Biddeford police officer would be placed at the end of the line. Anyone in front of the officer would be allowed to vote, but anyone who shows up after 8 p.m. would not.

Penny Beaupre, the head warden of Biddeford’s polling place, said there were no issues during the day. She said only a few voters were not wearing face coverings “and we can’t force them to put one on.”

Beaupre and Morris anticipated a long night, especially with a large number of absentee ballots to be tabulated after the polls close.

LIGHTENING THINGS UP: In Portland, the election took on a party atmosphere in the afternoon, with a half-dozen people dancing and waving colorful foam-board hearts with one-word messages of Love, Believe, Imagine and Yes outside Portland City Hall, the site of one of the city’s voting precincts.

“We are the Love Factory,” said Tami Joy of Scarborough. “Our only goal is to lighten things up with people and get them to smile. We’re non-political and non-divisive.”

Krista Donoghue of Portland started the Love Factory more than four years ago as an interactive, spiritual project and her group generally demonstrates on weekends near Congress Square Park. Judging by the abundant honks and thumbs-up signals from passing motorists, the location near City Hall was a popular one.

“It’s really magical what happens when we do it, the outpouring of appreciation and support,” Donoghue said. “We see people with Trump flags hooting and hollering and we see people with Biden signs doing the same thing. It’s all about coming together and what we all share in common.”

Passers-by occasionally joined in with the dancing. The musical choices featured uplifting songs about people getting along.

Chris Horne, a staffer with the Portland City Clerk’s Office, unloads absentee ballots from a drop box at City Hall on Tuesday morning. Horne said she had unloaded the box three times by 10:30 a.m. and usage has been heavy, particularly overnight. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Betsy Sweet, a candidate in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate won by Sara Gideon, handed out fanciful wings to the demonstrators as part of a national “Joy to the Polls” effort to thank voters that she planned to bring to South Portland and Biddeford as well.

“We’re so grateful for the people who are making their voice heard,” Sweet said. “This record turnout is very exciting, so we want to say thank you very much and provide a little entertainment for the voters waiting in lines.”

One woman who joined in with the Love Factory dancers wore a head covering in the shape of a donkey’s head, a traditional symbol of the Democratic Party. Megan Jones of Portland said she had come to City Hall to encourage people to vote and saw the Love Factory folks.

“I decided to hang out,” she said, “and be a friendly donkey with the friendly dancers.”

WORTH THE WAIT: In Westbrook, the community center gymnasium was a busy site, with police and volunteers directing traffic around a packed parking lot. It was the city’s only spot for in-person voting.

Sean Welsch, 42, said he did not trust the U.S. Postal Service to deliver his ballot.

“I don’t trust the mail,” said Welsch, a self-employed carpenter. “It hasn’t been getting here on time.”

Welsch, wearing a blue disposable face mask, said he was more concerned about participating in the political process than the risk posed by COVID-19.

“It hasn’t felt normal, but it’s one of the most important elections,” he said.

Poll worker Ralph Masciovecchio directs voters to voting machines at Scarborough High School on Election Day Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Autumn Lebourdais, 20, a student at Empire Beauty School, decided to vote in person because she forgot to get a mail-in ballot. She said she also enjoys the social aspect of people coming together to vote.

Lebourdais admitted that the pandemic makes her nervous – she knows people who got the virus and doesn’t want to risk getting her friends and family sick. It’s also adding to the political tension, she said.

“I feel like people are more divided than they were because of COVID,” Lebourdais said. “It’s a scary situation.”

Inside the community center, the line to get into the gymnasium snaked around the hallway inside the building, and a polling worker estimated the wait was at least 25 minutes. Social distancing restrictions limit to 50 the number of people permitted inside the gymnasium at one time, and half of them are poll workers, so only 25 voters are allowed inside at once.

About 500 voters were lined up to vote at Berwick Town Hall Tuesday morning, with the line encircling the building.

But it moved at a brisk pace and within 90 minutes of the polls opening, had shortened significantly to between 150 and 200 people.

A line of approximately 150 voters had formed around the North Berwick Elementary School parking lot prior to that town’s poll opening at 8 a.m., but by noon, voters were able to walk right inside the small gymnasium.

“It was super easy. We saw lines all over Facebook but it wasn’t like that here,” said Chris Little, 40, a horticulturist in the medical marijuana industry, who voted at North Berwick Elementary School. About 150 had gathered at the school to vote when the polls opened at 8 a.m., but the line had disappeared by noon.

North Berwick Town Clerk Christine Dudley said her office had received just under 1,700 absentee ballots from the 4,106 voters registered prior to Tuesday’s election. She expects North Berwick to far surpass the 2,899 votes cast in the 2016 presidential election.

“We’re estimating about 3,200,” Dudley said, noting the process had gone smoothly with no delays, breakdowns or civil unrest.

“Election day is my favorite day,” Dudley said. “It’s just our democratic process. And, I get to see people I might not have seen for a while.”

There were no lines in Scarborough at the high school polling location, but a steady stream of voters exited after casting their ballots around 10 am. Voters said they only had to wait a short time to vote, and that the polling place felt safe.

Samantha Cafone, 30, said she waited about 20 minutes inside because the line for voters within her alphabetical bracket was the longest. She voted for President Trump and thought it made sense to do it in person.

“If I can stand in line at Walmart, I can stand in line to vote,” she said.

Bridget Harmon, 42, said she intended to vote absentee, but never got around to returning her ballot so came in person instead. A regular voter, Harmon voted for Biden. Even with precautions, voting went smoothly this time, Harmon said.

Saco had a line of about 500 people waiting to vote at Thornton Academy’s Linnell Gymnasium when the polls opened.

Claire Foran, a Ward 6 clerk who was working the polls, said the turnout was steady all morning, with a slight lull starting at about 9 a.m.

Annastascia Goodwin, 28, was voting for the first time. She brought her 6-year-old son Ashton, who is studying remotely as part of a hybrid plan at his school.

“I think it was really important for me to be in person today,” she said.

Goodwin said she was never “taught to vote,” but this year was too important to not be involved.

“There’s a lot of people, a lot of injustices going on,” she said. “So I thought it was very important to get out and make my voice heard.”

Saco’s Ward 5 warden, Daniel Villemaire, said there was a steady stream of voters all day and he anticipated a push after the dinner hour.

“Turnout is what we expected,” he said.

PIZZA FOR POLL WORKERS: Villemaire noted that an anonymous donor provided lunch to the poll workers, with 10 pizzas delivered  to them at noon.

Turnout in Falmouth already had exceeded those of previous presidential years before the polls even opened Tuesday, Town Clerk Ellen Planer said.

About three-quarters of the more than 10,000 registered voters in town cast absentee ballots, she said. In a normal year, about half the town’s voters cast absentee ballots, Planer said. By about 10 a.m. Tuesday, more than 560 votes had been cast in person, she said.

“So today is not going to be that busy,” Planer said.

This year’s ballot is topped by the contest for Maine’s four Electoral College votes between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Unlike most states which employ a winner-take-all process, Maine awards two electoral votes to the statewide winner, and one vote to the winner of each congressional district. In 2016, that led to the state’s first-ever split vote, with Hillary Clinton receiving three Electoral College votes for winning the statewide race and the 1st Congressional District, and Trump receiving one vote for carrying the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

Mainers also will elect a U.S. senator, choosing between incumbent Republican Susan Collins, Democratic candidate Sara Gideon and independents Max Linn and Lisa Savage. The race has been marked by unprecedented levels of spending by Collins and Gideon.

In House races, incumbent Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, is being challenged by Republican candidate Jay Allen in the state’s 1st Congressional District. In the 2nd District, which covers central and northern Maine, incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden is running against Republican candidate Dale Crafts.

All 35 state senate and 151 state house seats are up for election. Democrats currently hold a 21-14 edge in the senate and a 87-56 majority over Republicans, with six independents and two vacant seats, in the house.

Staff Writers Matt Byrne, Peter McGuire, Mike Lowe, Steve Craig, Glenn Jordan and Bob Keyes contributed to this story.

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