AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday in Maine looks set to drive turnout that will lead the party’s voters to significantly outnumber Republicans, a gap that could affect a referendum on vaccine exemptions and a special legislative election in Brewer.
It is not surprising that the Democratic primary election featuring five active candidates would draw more Democrats than Republicans with President Donald Trump unopposed on his party’s ballot. But the gap in absentee ballots issued between the two parties is unprecedented compared to elections since 2014 that have been both good and bad for Democrats.
Democratic voters always vote absentee in greater numbers. But the ratio is skewed this year. Maine leans slightly Democratic, with about 33 percent of active voters registered as Democrats and to 27 percent registered as Republicans. Democrats vote absentee in greater numbers, handily outnumbering Republicans in every race since 2014. The gap was closest that year, when Gov. Paul LePage was re-elected in a Republican wave.
During that time, Democrats ranged from making up 37 percent and 47 percent of the total share of absentee ballots issued. Before Tuesday’s election, however, 61 percent of absentee ballots were issued to Democrats, compared to 22 percent for Republicans. That 39-point gap between the parties is more than twice as big as the one Democrats had in their 2018 wave.
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It means a Democratic-dominated electorate is likely to be voting on another item on the ballot on Tuesday, a referendum on mandatory vaccination exemptions. A “yes” vote on the people’s veto effort would repeal a new vaccine law and allow parents to continue exempting their children from mandatory school vaccines for religious and personal reasons, while voting “no” vote upholds the law, meaning only medical exemptions would be allowed.
The law that prompted the referendum passed last year largely along partisan lines, suggesting that high Democratic turnout might favor the “no” side. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, opposes the referendum, saying vaccines are a matter of public health, while the Maine Republican Party supports it, on grounds of religious and personal freedom.
Opponents of the law have said they have many Democrats as a part of their coalition. Voter enthusiasm could work against a partisan gap in absentee voters. But it still looks like a hard election for the “yes” side to win in given the largely partisan framing of the campaign.
A special election for a House seat in a swing district in Brewer is also seeing more ballots from Democrats. The election is to fill the seat of the late Rep. Archie Verow, who died of a heart attack in December. Former Rep. Garrel Craig, a Republican, is facing Brewer City Councilor Kevin O’Connell in one of Maine’s clearest examples of a swing district.
Verow, a Democrat, was elected to the Maine House in 2012 and re-elected in 2014 before losing his seat to Craig in 2016. Verow then ran again in 2018 and beat Craig in the rematch. When Verow lost in 2016, only 37 percent of absentee ballots went to Democrats; when he won in 2018, that figure was 41 percent. Ahead of Tuesday’s election, 51 percent of absentee ballots were issued to Democrats to 34 percent of Republicans.
Republicans were canvassing the city over the weekend and have touted a beefed-up mobilization and data effort with the full weight of Trump’s campaign behind them in 2020. While it looks like they have done better in Brewer than other parts of Maine, it’s still an uphill battle.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.