AUGUSTA, Maine — With two damaged and historically unpopular presidential candidates at the top of the ticket, political observers have speculated that some voters will sit out this year’s election.
In Maine, surging absentee voter data and five referendum questions that will attract new voters from across the political spectrum point to another heavy turnout for the state with one of the most engaged electorates in the country.
“We’re getting very close to the record,” Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin said Thursday afternoon as she was tapping into her supply of Election Day ballots because she’s used up all the absentee ballots. “The record from 2008 was 8,200 and we’re nearing that.”
The deadline to request an absentee ballot in Maine passed on Thursday but the deadline for voters to submit them is 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Election Day. Maine’s final numbers are still days away and how high they go will be the result of factors beyond the current election cycle. Regardless, one thing is becoming clear: Mainers may be depressed about the election but voter turnout is unlikely to be.
“The turnout is very good and it’s picked up in the last couple of days,” said Twila Lycette, the clerk in Lisbon, which on Thursday was within 75 absentee ballots of breaking the 2008 record of 1,575. “We’re prepared for good crowds.”
Approaching the record. As of late Thursday afternoon, nearly 258,000 absentee ballots had been issued and nearly 219,000 of them had been returned by voters. In 2008, when the current record was set, there were about 244,000 absentee ballots issued and 239,000 returned. So statewide absentee ballots are still lagging about 20,000 behind 2008 numbers but there are still plenty of ballots out there to break the record.
A lull in 2012. The number of absentee voters decreased in 2012 to about 190,000 returned ballots, but that could be because of a new law in Maine that created a deadline of three days before Election Day for Mainers to request absentee ballots.
“I think voters are catching on to the new deadline,” said Goodwin, who is also president of the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association.
Other explanations could be less enthusiasm for presidential candidates this year than in 2008, the last open election for president. Enthusiasm tends to tick back when a sitting president is running for re-election, as was the case in 2012.
A long history. Absentee voting in Maine traces back to the Civil War for the benefit of soldiers on far-away battlefields, according to information from the Maine Law and Legislative Reference Library. Absentee voting in its current form was enacted in 1951, but for decades voters had to have a “reason deemed sufficient” to vote absentee, such as being physically incapacitated. Maine adopted “no excuse” absentee balloting in 1999, which allows anyone to vote days or weeks prior to Election Day for any reason.
Maine has not adopted early voting, a different process in which ballots are both cast and counted prior to Election Day. The state ran some early voting pilot programs in the early 2000s, but the practice was never fully implemented. A number of Maine municipalities do process absentee ballots prior to Election Day — beginning Saturday this year — but the results are kept confidential until after the polls close election night.
National numbers. Nationally, the picture is mixed when it comes to early voting. Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign are fretting over a soft early voter turnout among black voters but are buoyed by stronger turnout levels by Latino voters. Republican nominee Donald Trump has reason for confidence based on strong early voting numbers in battleground states such as Ohio and Iowa. However, Democrats are surging to the polls in greater numbers than Republicans in states like toss-up Nevada.
Back to Maine
What about turnout between the parties? A Bangor Daily News analysis of 2016 absentee voter files found that Democrats are doing well so far in Maine.
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Democrats have cast 41.5 percent of absentee ballots so far, compared to 27 percent cast by Republicans and about 28 percent cast by unenrolled independents. Democrats have led this category since 2008 but their share of the overall point has edged about 0.7 percentage points upward from 2008 to 2016. Conversely, Republicans have seen their share of the absentee pie shrink by about the same amount since 2008.
One other bit of data about Mane’s absentee voter is troubling for the Libertarian Party, which is in the midst of trying to establish itself as Maine’s fourth official political party. For that to happen, at least 10,000 registered Libertarians need to vote in the 2016 election. Only 574 have been cast by Libertarians so far, which is is not an encouraging number for the party.
What does it mean? This advantage seems to be on the Democrats’ side — as it has been since 1992 in Maine for presidential elections — but there are many other factors at play. The five referendum questions, each of which has the potential to bring out new voters, could tilt close elections — such as the presidential or 2nd Congressional District races — in either direction. The minimum wage and school funding referendums could energize liberal voters while the attempt to implement background checks for private gun sales is expected to rally conservatives.
The major political parties both sound confident.
“On the Republican side, and with conservative voters of all parties, we see incredible enthusiasm to support Donald Trump and Bruce Poliquin, and a clear focus on stopping the extreme liberal policies and dishonesty of Emily Cain and Hillary Clinton,” said Maine GOP spokeswoman Nina McLaughlin.
The Democrats had a similar response.
“These record-shattering early vote numbers confirm the enthusiasm that we’re feeling on the ground,” said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett. “The high percentage of Democrats who have already cast their ballots allows us to better focus our resources on the remaining voters we need to turn out.”
Lines at the polls. In Presque Isle City Clerk Kim Finnemore said Thursday that the 1,173 absentee ballots that have been processed amounts to roughly 18 percent of Presque Isle’s 6,500 registered voters. Finnemore said voters have been telling her that they are happy with the choice of missing the crowds on Election Day.
In Belfast, a town with 5,248 eligible voters, 1,171 people have already voted. Another 217 requested absentee ballots but haven’t yet returned them. That’s a slight increase from the 2012 election, when 1,057 cast early ballots.
“I think most people were just anxious to have it done with, rather than waiting in line during a hectic Election Day,” said Angie Crosby, Belfast’s deputy city clerk Thursday. “We’ve had a handful of people who came out saying they haven’t voted since they were 18, but this election brought them out.”
In Portland, records have fallen. Nearly 14,400 people have submitted absentee ballots, smashing the 2008 high mark of 8,700. The number is expected to climb.
“There are probably another 1,000 people out there in line,” said City Clerk Kathy Jones at about 5 p.m. Thursday.
Mainers have a historically strong voting record. In 2014, when there was no presidential election, the national turnout was around 36.6 percent. Maine, fueled by 2014’s bruising gubernatorial race, was first in the nation that year with a nearly 60 percent turnout.
With just four days left until the election and all indications pointing toward another energized electorate spurred by a packed ballot and Maine’s battleground status in the presidential race, turnout here could be headed for another lofty milestone, which is just what Democrats in Maine are hoping for.
Bangor Daily News writers Darren Fishell, Anthony Brino, Nick McCrea and Jake Bleiberg contributed to this report.