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There will likely be fewer Maine voters at the polls on Tuesday compared to a typical primary election as the coronavirus prompts a record sum of absentee ballots, but results are not expected to be delayed unless ranked-choice voting kicks in for high-profile races.
Voters who go to their local polling station on July 14 are likely to see poll workers wearing personal protective equipment, spaces set up differently to accommodate physical distancing and bottles of hand sanitizer. Beyond that, the upcoming primary is set to function like any other.
Executive orders from Gov. Janet Mills extended the time period for residents to register to vote by mail and request absentee ballots, among other modifications, but Election Day is largely following the state’s normal playbook. Officials say the changes due to the coronavirus pandemic are unlikely to delay results, as has happened in other states.
The July 14 primary includes a three-way contest for the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Susan Collins as well as a Republican race for the nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in the 2nd District, both being decided by ranked-choice voting. There are also dozens of local primaries and two bond questions open to all voters regardless of political affiliation.
Absentee ballots are likely to account for the majority of turnout based on estimates from past primaries. Though July 7, the state received nearly 180,000 ballot requests, a record for a primary. More than 88,000 of those ballots have already been returned.
While expanded use of absentee or mail-in voting has been disruptive in several states, with states such as New York and Kentucky seeing results delayed by up to a week, officials say Maine is unlikely to see such a delay. Unlike some states, absentee ballots must be returned to town offices — not just postmarked — by the time polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Counting absentee ballots requires more steps than counting ballots cast in-person. Though Maine voters are voting absentee at an unprecedented rate for a primary, the number of ballots requested still does not eclipse that of previous general elections, a volume which cities and towns are generally equipped to handle. Towns concerned about counting the ballots on time were also allowed to get permission from the state to begin processing them early.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said at a Bangor Daily News reader event last month that he expects to see unofficial results on election night, something his office reiterated Tuesday. Those results are reported by town clerks to media outlets, including the Bangor Daily News, which collect them and typically project winners on election night.
In Lewiston, a city that consolidated its polling stations amid the push for absentee ballots, City Clerk Kathy Montejo said her office plans to release results around 9:30 p.m. as usual.
The winners of each race still might not be known on election night if races require ranked-choice voting, which kicks in if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. The ranked-choice tabulation requires the state to collect ballots or memory devices from every municipality.
Processing absentee ballots or regular ballots is the same for ranked-choice tabulation, said Kristen Muszynski, spokesperson for Dunlap’s office. A statewide ranked-choice process could take between a week-and-a-half and two weeks, while tabulating results from only one congressional district would be quicker, Muszynski said.
In 2018, the first time a Maine election used ranked-choice voting, both the Democratic gubernatorial primary and the congressional primary in the 2nd District required ranked-choice runoffs, with results not finalized for eight days after the primary.