Bangor election worker George Burgoyne carries a voting sign into the Cross Insurance Center at 8 p.m., just after polls closed in the July 14 primary election. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine judge declined on Wednesday to extend the deadline to submit absentee ballots and make other voting access changes that he said would risk “severe disruption” of the Nov. 3 election, although lawsuit backers teased an appeal.

The lawsuit from the Alliance of Retired Americans asked for a ruling to compel Maine to let voters electronically submit voter registration cards, accept absentee ballots postmarked on Election Day when clerks must now receive ballots by then and cover postage for mail ballots, but the request was denied by Superior Court judge William Stokes in a 28-page ruling

The alliance and allied groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine argued the increased reliance on absentee ballot voting during the coronavirus pandemic would deter those unfamiliar with the process and force them to make a choice between risking health to vote in person or not voting at all. 

But Stokes said the burdens imposed on voters by state law were “slight or moderate” and that the state’s deadline for turning in absentee ballots does not infringe upon their First Amendment rights. The risk of disrupting the state’s elections so close to Nov. 3 by instituting the plaintiff’s requested changes was much higher, Stokes ruled. 

He said changing the deadline would risk “severe disruption” of the state’s electoral process and could inspire distrust of results.

“For this court to unilaterally discard the statutory deadline and impose a deadline of its own choosing, [that] would amount to a judicial re-writing of the election laws,” Stokes wrote.

Richard Fiesta, the Alliance’s executive director, said in a Wednesday statement that his group was disappointed in the ruling and planned to file an appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. That appeal will seek to require the state to notify voters if ballots are rejected due to a technical defect or mismatched signature and to count ballots postmarked by Election Day.

The ruling was a victory for Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, whose office argued against the changes and has faced two major election lawsuits this year. He said Wednesday that the ruling, if it stands, will allow his office to focus on the logistics of the election, which is expected to see higher voter turnout and an emphasis on absentee voting.

Some of the demands would have presented particular challenges for the state with Nov. 3 a little over a month away, Dunlap said. In particular, he said there was “no way” the state could have developed an online voter registration system — one request in the lawsuit — by Election Day saying the state had neither the time nor the funding to create and implement it.

Dunlap’s office had argued the state has already taken enough precautions to protect voters who choose to vote in person through social distancing requirements and has taken additional steps to make absentee ballot voting easier via extended deadlines for registration. 

Their position was echoed by President Donald Trump’s election campaign and the Maine Republican Party, which intervened in the case and argued that Maine’s voting laws were liberal enough. Trump has often said voting by mail is rife with fraud, a false claim he repeated on Tuesday in his first presidential debate against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Stokes pointed to state instructions to municipal clerks to reach out to voters if something was wrong with their ballots and a recently-instituted absentee ballot tracking system as sufficient actions to ensure voters are not disenfranchised.

Maine saw a record number of people use absentee ballots during the July 14 primary. As of last week, 233,438 ballots have been requested, according to Dunlap’s office. There are no known virus cases related to in-person voting from that election.