Town clerks and state officials in Maine are turning their eyes toward November after a dress rehearsal that proved the state can run an election that relies much more heavily on absentee ballots.
The state’s July 14 primary shattered previous records for absentee ballot use in a primary. Residents took out more than 200,000 of the ballots, which was nearly six times the total from the June 2018 primary.
But the real test is November, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said. Municipalities and the state might need to make some additional tweaks, but Dunlap is confident Maine election results will be available to the public on general election night later this year.
However, turnout on general election night could be two to three times higher than the primary, and that could pose challenges, he said.
“November’s going to be a different game,” Dunlap said. “With social distancing and a much, much heavier turnout, we’ll probably strongly push absentee balloting again.”
Maine officials including Dunlap and Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, strongly encouraged absentee voting during this month’s primary to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus. The state also allowed residents to pick up absentee ballots up until the close of polls, which was a few days longer than they normally have.
That caused some confusion in smaller cities and towns, which had to accommodate voters at city halls as well as at polling places. The state might revisit that change, Dunlap said.
Maine might also consider a statutory change to allow earlier processing of ballots before the general election, Dunlap said.
That would give cities like Lewiston, the state’s second-largest city, more time to process a flood of absentee ballots. Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said the city processed 3,790 absentee ballots and saw 1,626 voters at the polls. In the 2018 primary, there were 4,800 voters and nearly 4,000 of them cast ballots in person, she said.
City and town clerks will have recommendations about how to smooth the process in the coming weeks, Montejo said.
“We knew Tuesday was a primer for November,” she said. “In earnest starting on Monday, municipal clerks will be regrouping and say what’s on everyone’s list.”
In Portland, a rush of nearly 2,000 absentee ballots on Tuesday led to massive delays. The city didn’t complete its vote count until the day after the election, and the city was still wrapping up its state paperwork on Friday.
On Tuesday, there was a line of people voting at City Hall via absentee ballot while local precincts for in-person voting were largely deserted, Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones said. The election itself ran smoothly.
“The only difficulty we ran into was the volume of absentee ballots that came back the day before the Election Day and Election Day. There’s nothing you can do about that,” she said.
The 2020 general election will be one of the most watched in Maine in years, as it includes a hotly contested U.S. Senate race. Maine also has four electoral votes up for grabs in the presidential race.
The presence of ranked-choice voting could also make the races even more competitive — and more time consuming to count. Dunlap said he anticipates all first-place votes will be tallied by the end of election night, but the ranked rounds would still take several days.
“You’re going to know the first place votes on Tuesday night in November,” he said.
Story by Patrick Whittle. Associated Press writer David Sharp contributed to this report.