Karen Jellison, warden, disinfects a booth after a voter leaves at the Dedham School gymnasium on Tuesday afternoon. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

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AUGUSTA, Maine — A record flood of absentee ballots is expected to help Maine meet turnout projections in Tuesday’s election, even as the coronavirus pandemic curbs in-person turnout across the state.

Voters did much of their work ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, with more than 200,000 people getting absentee ballots as of Monday, according to data from Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office. That equates to about 20 percent of Maine voters, with Dunlap projecting roughly 25 percent turnout by the end of Election Day.

The highest-profile elections on the Tuesday ballot were three-way races for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and the Republican primary for the right to take on U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District, plus local questions and two statewide bond issues. Both races will be decided by ranked-choice voting.

Because of the pandemic, state officials encouraged voters to use mail-in absentee ballots instead of voting in person to avoid crowds at polling places that could serve to spread the coronavirus. Polling stations were open nonetheless on Tuesday with strict sanitation rules, but they were mostly quiet and voters were scarce.

As he traveled to polling places between his home city of Old Town and Portland on Tuesday, Dunlap said he expected his turnout projection to roughly hold with relatively sparse turnout.

“Working with the clerks, we think we’ve done a pretty good job mapping this out,” Dunlap said.

Turnout was higher than the statewide projection in Bangor, where just over 1,800 voted in person as of 4 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena on top of 5,100 voters who requested absentee ballots as of Monday. It would add up to more than 30 percent turnout in Maine’s third-largest city, where there were three competitive Democratic legislative primaries.

A reporter was around the 500th voter to cast a ballot in person in Augusta just before 3 p.m., where voting was consolidated on the main auditorium floor of the city-owned civic center. Roughly 2,400 others had requested absentee ballots in the state’s capital.

The expansion of absentee voting had some hiccups. Tara O’Donovan, a 19-year-old student at the University of Vermont who lives in Belfast, came to the polls to cast her Democratic ballot after wrongly being sent a Republican one.

But voters across the state were comfortable at the sparsely populated polls on Tuesday. O’Donovan called voting “super easy” and “very distanced.” Anne Clowe, 72, of Rockland, said the workers at the Rockland polling station were “more than prepared” in terms of spacing of booths and having masks and hand sanitizer readily available.

“I’ve voted in every election since I’ve been eligible when I turned 18. To me, this is no different,” said Fred Grooms, 60, of Presque Isle. “Yeah, you have the mask and stuff, but you know what, if wearing this can save even one person, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Associated Press writer David Sharp and Bangor Daily News writers Abigail Curtis, Lauren Abbate, Eesha Pendharkar and David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...