Turnout among Maine’s young voters has surged amid a historic push for absentee voting ahead of the election on Tuesday, when first-time voters and others who did not cast a ballot four years ago could play a major role in competitive races.

Maine voters have already cast absentee ballots in record numbers as state and local officials have pitched absentee voting as a safe alternative due to the coronavirus. As of Saturday, more than 486,000 Mainers had successfully voted absentee, accounting for 46 percent of registered voters in the state and 63 percent of 2016 turnout.

More than one-fifth of those who have cast absentee ballots did not vote four years ago. A surge in young voters could benefit Democratic candidates, including House Speaker Sara Gideon, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in what looks like a close race. Exact turnout predictions are difficult in an election transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it’s safe to say that not only in Maine, but probably nationwide, we’re going to either come close to or set turnout records in this election cycle,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.

Among the pool of Maine voters who had already cast ballots as of the middle of last week, nearly 22 percent did not vote in 2016, according to data compiled by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. That group encompasses young voters casting ballots for the first time, transplants who moved here recently and longtime residents who sat out the 2016 election.

Maine is not unique. Nationally, about 28 percent of ballots have been cast by voters who did not vote in 2016. But Maine is one of a handful of states where the surge could swing competitive races, including the Senate contest and the presidential race in the 2nd Congressional District between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Early turnout among voters under age 30 in Maine is more than double 2016 levels, according to TargetSmart. That surge is more likely to favor Democrats. Of the nearly 34,000 registered Maine voters who have turned 18 since the last presidential election, about 44 percent are Democrats compared to only 23 percent Republicans, according to state data. Among Maine voters, about 36 percent are Democrats compared to 27 percent who are Republicans.

“Generally, younger voters are one of the lower-turnout groups in elections. That’s not looking like it’s going to be true this time.” Brewer said. “Young voters look like they’re going to turn out at levels that are, if not equal to, at least close to their older counterparts.”

Olivia Wiener, 18, a first-year Bates College student who voted in Lewiston last week, said she was motivated to vote for Democrats, including Gideon and Biden, in part by her concern about climate change, an issue she said many of her peers care about too.

“Young people aren’t apathetic or lazy about voting,” said Wiener, who works with NextGen Maine, a progressive organization aiming to boost turnout among young voters. “We really do care about issues and want to make our voices heard.”

Not all young voters are motivated by the same issues. Dylan Oliver, 20, a University of Maine senior active with Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian student organization, cast his first presidential ballot on Friday for Libertarian Jo Jorgensen. Oliver, who grew up in Hodgdon, did not use ranked-choice voting, saying nobody else did enough to earn his vote.

“I’ve always been interested in politics and I’ve been engaged every election cycle since I was eight years old,” Oliver said. “It’s nice to finally be able to cast my vote for who I feel is most fit for office.”

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