Maine poll workers on Tuesday can start processing an unprecedented deluge of absentee ballots that voters have mailed in or, in many cases, hand-delivered this month.
The general mood among those responsible for getting all the votes counted by next Tuesday or soon after could be characterized as confident, but alert. And for some postal workers, state officials, municipal clerks and voters, it has been tense.
Since in-person-absentee voting started in early October, Cumberland Town Clerk Tammy O’Donnell has overseen a steady flow of voters — and volunteers — coming through the doors of Town Hall.
From behind a plastic barrier and sporting a powder-blue mask emblazoned with the white letters “VOTE,” O’Donnell is the very picture of a pandemic-era poll worker. She says that in this intense election season, voters are showing increased interest in how, exactly, their ballots are being handled.
“Certainly a lot more angst among the voters for this election. Much more so than any election that I’ve been involved with. And I find that a little concerning and unfortunate,” she says.
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And O’Donnell says citizens are putting a premium on physically handing their ballots over.
“To vote in front of us, then handing in their ballots to us to make sure the ballots are received. Which is something that really I’ve never seen happen before,” she says.
O’Donnell also says there were early worries that pandemic concerns would lead to a shortage of poll workers. But she and clerks elsewhere instead found themselves with more than enough volunteers, meaning socially distanced Election Day lines may be quite manageable thanks to the immense number of ballots turned in early.
Statewide, more than 340,000 voters returned their ballots by last Friday, roughly a third of the entire Maine electorate and far above the number returned in the 2016 presidential election.
John Bradbury of Cumberland was one who chose to do it all in-person.
“For two reasons actually. We’ve been talking about getting in here early and voting to ensure our votes are counted and make sure there’s very little question about all of that. I happened today to be coming by after dropping off something at a friend’s house. It’s really important to be doing our civic duty these days I believe,” he says.
There have been glitches along the way. In Brewer, ballots meant for one voting district were sent to another. Elsewhere, voters have put their absentee ballots in drop boxes for the wrong town.
Those situations are being cleared up, election officials say. But one more significant annoyance emerged statewide: Many voters received multiple absentee ballot request forms, unsolicited, from voting advocacy groups as well as the state parties.
“This year has been full of excitement, I won’t lie. It’s been different than any other year,” says Leanna Targett, Kingfield’s registrar of voters.
Targett says one voter sent in eight separate absentee ballot requests. She says older residents seemed most likely to be thrown off by an avalanche of election mail and text messages.
“And we had a lot of people calling us that were quite upset because they hadn’t requested an absentee ballot,” she says. “We spent a week telling people you can come here and physically vote, you do not have to absentee.”
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap is proposing that in future elections the state allow only clerks and recognized political parties to mail out absentee ballot request forms — an idea that is not popular with third-party advocacy groups.
But even with the pandemic-driven surge in early voting and political talk calling the election’s integrity into doubt, Dunlap says things in general are going well.
“There’s so much energy around this election cycle that people get very nervous, very quickly and come to conclusions without double-checking things before they sort of freak out a little bit,” he says. “There’s more smoke than fire.”
One fire that broke out over the summer — serious slowdowns in mail delivery — seems to have abated. That was after postal unions and state attorneys general successfully sued the Trump administration to restore overtime allowances and other practices essential to managing the ebb and flow of mail volume.
Postal workers say flexibility is vital not only at a time of unprecedented mail-in voting, but during a pandemic that’s produced a tidal wave of deliveries to online shoppers.
“We had all been here as essential workers, we worked right the process, we keep coming, it’s not an eight hour day, it’s 12. I’m working a 12-hour day today,” says Scott Adams, who works at the regional mail-sorting plant in Scarborough and is local president of the union that represents mail sorters.
Adams says that management and front-line staff are now working hand-in-hand to ensure efficient mail delivery through the election and beyond.
The U.S. Postal Service is advising voters to get absentee ballots in the mail at least a week before Election Day — as in now. And the state’s highest court ruled last week that any votes received by clerks after the polls close next Tuesday will not be counted, regardless of when they are postmarked.
Adams says that there is a tradition in the Postal Service of providing an informal backstop for late-mailed ballots.
“And we’ve done this in the past: if we have ballots that are here on Election Day we will send employees out to take them to those towns. I mean they’ve had people get in their cars and say, ‘These three votes, go.’ Up until 8 o’clock that night we’ll be doing everything we can,” he says.
Even with that civic above-and-beyond, though, some late-mailed ballots might not get to a sorting facility in time to be stamped and brought to the towns — one reason clerks everywhere in Maine are encouraging citizens to vote early if they can.
The numbers do indicate a record turnout is developing, although few observers are ready to discount the uncertainties and make a firm prediction. The president of the Maine Town and City Clerks Association, Shelly Crosby, says voter interest has never been so high, and with the pandemic raising awareness and leading to new voting options she believes many citizens who’ve never voted before will this time out.
“In an election such as this, we are definitely making history,” she says. “We’re here to get the job done. We just roll up our sleeves and we just smile and keep absentee ballots moving and then on Election Day, the ballots.”
Friday is the last day that the state will allow in-person voting, until Election Day itself, that is.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.