Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap talks on a mobile phone near a painting of George Washington at the State House in Augusta on Wednesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

An expansion of absentee voting went relatively smoothly in Maine’s July primaries, but the state is exploring the addition of drop boxes for ballots ahead of the November general election amid concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and the coronavirus pandemic.

The virus led to a wide transformation of state elections, though Maine’s came under an existing and liberal absentee voting process. But there have been reports of mail delivery slowing as the postal service cut back on overtime in July and criticism of mail-in voting from President Donald Trump has some concerned that slowdowns could interfere with voting in November.

On Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, said on a Maine Public call-in show that the state was considering further election changes, the most notable being setting up drop boxes in every town so voters could return their ballots without relying on the mail or interacting with anyone, but there is a backlog in production and the state is trying to find a manufacturer.

Some towns had such boxes ahead of the primary, but the state could make it universal, said Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. These types of boxes have long been used in some states, while others including Connecticut are using them for the first time in its 2020 primaries.

“There’s a lot of nervousness around the country around the furor over Trump and the postal service,” Dunlap said. “So we’re taking a long hard look at that and working with the governor’s office to see if there’s any remedial action.”

Any change could come with some resistance. Trump’s campaign sued state and county officials in Pennsylvania last month in a bid to stop them from implementing the boxes due to concerns of fraud, though mail ballot fraud is rare. Jason Savage, the executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said he would be “skeptical of any new, expansive spending.”

The July primary set a record with more than 205,000 absentee ballots requested and 185,000 returned, according to data released by Dunlap’s office, accounting for nearly 60 percent of overall turnout. Among absentee ballots that were returned late or not at all in Maine’s July election, delays in mail did not seem to play a role in most cases, the secretary of state said.

In Lewiston, for example, about 500 ballots issued did not arrive by 8 p.m. on election night, he said, but only 25 trickled in late. Most of those were postmarked on or after Election Day or the day before. Of absentee ballots returned on time statewide, only 2,163 were rejected, or about 1.1 percent. The most common reason for rejection was that the envelope was not signed.

Confusion about what was on the ballot may have led some to not return absentee ballots they requested, Dunlap said. He said town clerks reported fielding questions about why ballots did not feature a question on the Central Maine Power corridor, for instance. The corridor referendum will take place in November, but outside groups have spent millions on TV ads about it, which may have led some voters to think they would be voting on it this summer.

Lawmakers and advocates in Maine and nationally have expressed worries in recent weeks about the ability of the postal service to deliver absentee ballots on time. This week, a local postal union alleged that 80,000 pieces of mail were left behind in southern Maine on Monday due to a policy change, though the exact scope of delays is unclear.

The postal service has long faced financial troubles due in part to a pension requirement passed in the mid-2000s and broader trends in mail delivery. It has experienced additional budget shortfalls due to the coronavirus pandemic and is undergoing cost containment efforts under new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump ally.

The agency’s financial status “is not going to impact our ability to process and deliver election and political mail,” said Steve Doherty, a regional spokesperson for the postal service.

The state is also contemplating changing the deadline for absentee ballot requests and returns, Dunlap said. For the July primary, Mills issued an executive order waiving the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot, which is usually the Thursday before the election, allowing voters to request and return absentee ballots up until 8 p.m. on Election Day.

More than 2,000 voters requested ballots either on Election Day or the afternoon before, state data show. That posed some challenges for town officials, Dunlap said, because counting absentee ballots requires several additional steps compared to counting in-person ballots.

He said the state was contemplating a different deadline for the general, possibly cutting off absentee voting the day before Election Day, as the volume of absentee ballots is expected to be even higher. Any change would require another executive order from Mills, whose previous orders only covered the July primary.

Absentee ballots requests for the general election opened last week, though ballots are not sent until 30 days before the election. The state is currently revamping its online ballot request form, but voters can request a ballot by filling out and printing a form or calling their town office.

BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this report.