Superior Court Justice William Stokes speaks to jurors during a 2019 murder trial. He is presiding over a case that could reshape how Maine allows people to vote in the 2020 election. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine judge said Monday he expects to rule next week on whether the state must make its relatively liberal voting system more flexible, a decision that could reshape how the election unfolds here with Election Day roughly six weeks away.

Experts for the Alliance of Retired Americans, the advocacy group for seniors that sued Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to seek the changes in June, testified during a Monday hearing that the coronavirus pandemic and mail delays would disenfranchise voters unfamiliar with the absentee system and force vulnerable seniors to put health at risk by voting in person.

That group and others are looking to force Maine to let voters electronically submit voter registration cards, accept absentee ballots postmarked on Election Day when clerks must now receive ballots by that and cover postage for mail ballots. Superior Court judge William Stokes said he would likely rule early next week after Tuesday closing arguments.

Dunlap, a Democrat, has wound up on the same side of the lawsuit as President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign to resist the lawsuit alongside other Republican groups, arguing the state’s process is safe and accessible enough. It is one of 19 states that allows same-day registration for new voters and among 29 states that allow no-excuse absentee voting.

Similar lawsuits across the country have had mixed results. Pennsylvania and Georgia will allow absentee ballots to be counted if they come in by the Friday after Election Day. But a federal judge in Oklahoma ruled last week that the state had done enough to ensure safe voting.

Unofficial election results could be delayed in those states and others for days or up to a week because of record shares of absentee voters expected during the pandemic. Maine cities and towns are not expecting long delays, but more places than usual may report returns on the Wednesday after Election Day.

Maine’s primary on July 14 primary was seen as a successful example of how elections would operate under social distancing requirements and an increased absentee voting. Nov. 3 will still have those requirements in place. The state is taking other steps to try to account for the typical high turnout presidential elections bring and avoid results being delayed.

It has beefed up the number of ballot tabulators it is lending to municipalities and has released guidance on the use of ballot drop boxes. Gov. Janet Mills gave clerks more time to process absentee ballots and extended the deadline for voter registration by six days. Maine also agreed to expand its electronic voting system to make it accessible to visually impaired voters.

Voting advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, say those provisions are still not enough, with chief counsel Zach Heiden saying the court has a chance to “make sure that all eligible voters are able to register and vote” easily.

Stokes occasionally pushed back against that idea on Monday. He asked Ronald Stroman, a former deputy postmaster general who has testified in other similar cases in other states, whether state laws allowing voters to request ballots up to five days before the election were not meant to align with mail schedules but to ensure voting access in the event of an emergency.

Stroman said that accessibility is an “illusion” unless the state actively discourages people from sending last-minute ballots by mail, given the potential for mail delays.

“You’re potentially disenfranchising voters who figure, ‘Okay, I’m just going to stick it in the mail,'” he said.

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