AUGUSTA, Maine — Absentee ballots begin going out to Maine voters Monday ahead of the November referendum and municipal elections dominated by a question looking to overturn the $1 billion hydropower corridor through western Maine.
Maine has long had a robust system for allowing absentee voting, allowing voters to request an absentee ballot for any reason. It gained significant attention during the pandemic last year as voters worried about gathering at the polls, with a record total of more than 500,000 voting absentee and accounting for about 63 percent of all ballots cast that year.
Here is what to know about voting absentee again this year.
What is on the ballot this year?
Mainers can vote on three ballot questions this year. The highest-profile one is a referendum from opponents of the Central Maine Power Co. corridor, who aim to block that project and similar transmission lines through western Maine and require supermajority approval in the Legislature leases for similar projects on public lands back to 2014.
There is also a $100 million bond question to fund transportation infrastructure and with an amendment to add the “right to food” to the Maine Constitution. The measure made it through the Legislature this year with the backing of local farmers, but it merely affirms a right to “grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume” food and would likely lead to few short-term changes.
Many municipalities also have local elections this year. For example, Bangor will vote on new city councilors and school committee members as well as changes to the city’s charter. Portland residents will vote on key city council and school board seats.
Augusta is electing a new mayor, while residents of the capital city west of the Kennebec River in House District 86 will also elect a new state representative to replace Republican Justin Fecteau, who resigned earlier this year. Check with your municipal clerk to see what else may be on the ballot where you live.
How do I request an absentee ballot?
Maine voters can request an absentee ballot online or by calling their municipal clerk’s office until 5 p.m. on Oct. 28.
When do I have to return it?
Absentee ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 2, which is the same time polls close. You can return your ballot by mail or drop it off at your municipal office or in a designated ballot drop box.
If you choose to return your absentee ballot via mail, election officials recommended allowing a few extra days to ensure it does not arrive late. If your ballot is two or more pages, you will need two stamps to ensure it is delivered. If it is only one page, one stamp is enough.
Where do I have to sign?
Your ballot will come with an envelope to return it in. It is essential that you sign in the spot indicated on the back of that envelope, otherwise your ballot will be rejected and your vote will not be counted. Your town clerk may give you a chance to cure your ballot if you return it early without a signature, but that is not guaranteed.
What about in-person or early voting?
Voters can also still vote in-person at their designated polling place on Election Day. Polls are required to be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. but may open as early as 6 a.m. in some towns.
Most towns also offer early voting, which technically relies on the same legal mechanism as absentee voting but allows voters to request, fill out and return a ballot all at the same time. Check with your town about early voting hours.
What is the system for voters with disabilities?
A group of visually impaired Mainers sued the state last year, saying there was no way for them to vote safely and privately as the state encouraged absentee voting during the pandemic. The state later agreed to expand an electronic voting system used for overseas voters and settled the lawsuit earlier this year with an agreement to rehaul the system by the 2024 elections.
For now, voters with disabilities that prevent them from marking a paper ballot can request an accessible absentee ballot that can be completed at home. Voters who use this process will get a secure link to download a PDF ballot, which they can complete and return electronically.
How many voters have requested absentee ballots so far?
As of Thursday, the most recent data available from the Maine secretary of state’s office, just over 19,000 Maine voters had requested ballots so far. Ballots began going out to overseas and military voters in mid-September, while ballots for voters living in Maine can go out Monday.