AUGUSTA, Maine — An effort to allow residents who vote early to place their ballots directly into a ballot box or voting machine rather than seal them in signed envelopes and submit them to a municipal clerk survived an initial vote Monday in the Maine House.

The House voted 90-50 in favor of a measure that would ask voters whether they want to amend the state constitution to allow towns and cities to set up early voting. Maine residents who wish to vote early now do so by completing absentee ballots, which are sealed in envelopes that the voter signs and held at a municipal clerk’s office until Election Day, when poll workers place them in ballot boxes or voting machines.

While Monday’s majority vote allows the bill to stay alive, the measure will need at least two-thirds support in future House and Senate votes in order to send a ballot question to voters.

The House voted on an amended version of LD 156, which started out as a bill that would require the Legislature to set up a statewide early voting system if voters supported the constitutional amendment. The amended version allows towns and cities that choose to do so to set up early voting.

“Let the people decide if they want to sign the envelope and hand it in and make it more difficult for town clerks, or if they want a secure vote,” said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. “It is about alleviating a serious burden at the town office.”

During debate on the House floor, proponents suggested the state should do all it can to make voting easy while opponents worried that the state’s smallest towns with limited office staff would be unable to handle the new early voting process.

“When it comes to voting, we should be doing all we can to expand access,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the assistant majority leader. “We are not mandating something. We’re giving them the option to choose.”

Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, worried that increased early voting would happen in Maine’s largest cities and have the effect of diminishing the influence of the state’s small towns.

“Because it is the cities that will benefit from this, the principle and the net effect of this will be that the cities will be determining who our next governor is. It will be the cities that will be determining referendums,” said Fredette, the House minority leader. “I think this violates that fundamental principle of one person, one vote.”

The proposal for an early voting constitutional amendment comes as more Mainers are casting absentee ballots.

Maine switched to “no excuse” absentee balloting in 2000, which removed requirements that voters provide a reason when asking to vote as early as three months in advance by absentee ballot. Since then, the number of absentee ballots cast has grown more than threefold.

The number of absentee ballots issued in 2000 (76,672) more than doubled for the 2004 presidential election (166,226), according to the secretary of state’s office. In 2008, the number of absentee ballots issued statewide soared to 243,992.