In this July 14, 2020, file photo, election workers process absentee ballots for the primary elections in Portland City Hall. Credit: David Sharp / AP

A record 277,000 Mainers have requested absentee ballots ahead of the November election as voting kicks off in earnest with just over a month to go before Election Day.

The surge comes as the pandemic has pushed many voters away from in-person voting due to public health concerns, but also as delays with the U.S. Postal Service have led to concerns that ballots sent in by mail might not arrive on time.

The latest figures, released by Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office on Friday, surpass the nearly 265,000 absentee ballot requests for the 2016 general election, when more than 770,000 voters ultimately cast ballots. The July primary, which predated the mail slowdown, set a record for a non-general election with more than 200,000 absentee ballot requests. Of those, about 185,000 were ultimately returned and 183,000 were deemed valid and counted.

As of 3 p.m. Friday, just over 1,500 absentee ballots had been returned in Maine, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Absentee ballot figures also include individuals who request an absentee ballot and fill it out at their town office, which is Maine’s form of early voting. Most towns began offering that option on Monday. It is available through Oct. 30.

Absentee ballots must be returned by 8 p.m. on Election Day — the same time that polls close — to be counted, according to state law. The surge in absentee ballot usage is not expected to lead to major delays in counting on election night, in part because Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order in August allowing clerks to begin processing the absentee ballots seven days before the election.

Democrats continue to outnumber Republicans in absentee ballot requests by larger margins than previous years. That may reflect that Republicans are more inclined to vote in-person on Election Day, as happened in July. Nearly twice as many ballots have been requested in the 1st Congressional District as the 2nd Congressional District, the state data show.

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