Caution tape closes off a voting stall to help distance voters to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus during Election Day at the East End School, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Thousands of people showed up to vote in person Tuesday, bearing wind, snow and cold to cap off an expensive and divisive election season in Maine that is also likely to see record turnout despite the coronavirus pandemic.

With 508,918 people voting absentee as of Tuesday afternoon and anecdotal reports of high voting rates across the state, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said turnout has been even higher than he expected.

“It is historic. We’ve never seen anything like this,” Dunlap said. “The discussion around our national future, or the future of our state and future of our individual communities, is really what’s generated this election to record numbers.”

Across the state, people shared their reasons for getting out to vote, motivated by the political moment, personal histories, and a desire to have a say. Rick Rivard, 47, an independent from Bridgton who was voting for President Donald Trump and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, said, “I always vote, every time. My grandparents fought in World War II so I could do this.”

Many people were not driven to vote a straight ticket. In Houlton, Donna Izzo, 69, said she voted for some Democrats and some Republicans, including Trump. “I think it’s important to vote even if you don’t like the candidates. If you don’t vote, you have to keep your mouth shut,” she said.

Others voted simply to defeat Trump. The president is not handling the country’s civil unrest well, said Naima Abdirhmon, 32, of Portland, who voted for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

“As a Black woman who’s an immigrant and a Muslim, there’s a lot of hatred his base group is drumming up,” said Abdirhmon, who voted for independent Lisa Savage in the U.S. Senate race. She ranked House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, second, who has held a slight edge in the polls over Collins.

More people are lending philosophical importance to the election, according to the Pew Research Center, with an increasing share of voters now saying politics is a struggle between right and wrong.

“I have a sticker on my car that says, ‘I’m voting for a president who tells the truth.’ I think the fate of the nation rests on the outcome of this election,” said Lila Nation, 73, of Belfast.

While record numbers voted absentee, people who showed up to vote in person said it was a tradition, or they believed they were less likely to encounter problems.

“I love the ritual and the community element to actually coming in and being a part of election day,” said Katrina Pound, 41, of Rockland, who was voting for Biden in the presidential race and Gideon in the Senate contest.

Most polling places did not have lines that caused “significant delays” in voting, according to the League of Women Voters of Maine, but some cities such as Portland saw waits of up to two hours.

Dunlap, the secretary of state, went to his hometown of Old Town on Tuesday morning, expecting to walk into the Elks Lodge and vote. Instead he found himself outside in line for about 20 minutes, given capacity restrictions inside the building. The snow “didn’t seem to deter anybody,” Dunlap said, including a woman with an oxygen tank and cane whose son was holding her elbow to steady her.

When Dunlap traveled to the Waterville Junior High School, he learned that people were just as persistent in voting. The city had processed 5,600 absentee ballots, and, just three hours after the polls opened, 640 people had already voted there, he said.

In Portland, people weren’t just waiting in lines outside to vote, they were also waiting to register to vote, he said. Voting was steady in Lewiston and Augusta as well.

While Dunlap has heard some complaints about the lines and people not wearing masks, overall, everything has “gone very smoothly,” he said.

The pandemic has pushed voting by absentee ballot “to the fore,” Dunlap said. In 2016, the state processed 140 absentee ballot applications on the first day the service was available. This year, the state didn’t even announce the option, Dunlap said, and it processed 2,000 applications in the first hour and 20,000 the first day.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 18,339 absentee ballots were still outstanding. People have until 8 p.m. to bring them to their voting place.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...