GARDINER — Like hundreds of other people across Maine, Sue Gove has already voted.
The 53-year-old Republican walked into Gardiner City Hall last week, dropped off her ballot and crossed one civic duty off her to-do list.
She and her husband, Michael, are headed to Florida soon, so they wanted to make sure their voices are heard.
“I watched the (presidential) debate, I’ve done a lot of reading, so I’m pretty well-informed,” she said.
City and town halls across Maine have been inundated with requests for absentee ballots for weeks and mailed out the first batch in early October. Portland has already received requests for 5,210 absentee ballots and is on pace to match the 2008 level, when 34 percent of voters cast their ballots without having to show up on Election Day, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.
“Right now, it’s kind of a trickle, but if something big happens, then all of a sudden (the clerks) see a lot of people show up,” she said.
Every municipal building in the state has mini-voting stations set up to accommodate those who want to vote in person well in advance of Nov. 6.
Some people come in to pay a sewer bill and ask for a ballot, clerks said. Other voters said they like to vote at home so they can help a sick family member fill out the paperwork.
While early voting and absentee voting are different in some states, in Maine, all voting before Election Day is considered absentee balloting.
Regardless of whether a voter picks up a ballot and takes it home, or gets a ballot and votes immediately at city hall, they are given the same absentee ballot, clerks said.
Voters can request an absentee ballot until Nov. 1, and the deadline to return it to the local town or city hall is Election Day, Nov. 6.
Voting early is a trend that has accelerated in the last decade, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono.
“It’s a pretty dramatic shift,” he said. “Campaigns go into close-the-deal mode a month before Election Day.”
That’s because many states have relaxed voting rules to make it easier for people to vote early, he said.
In Maine, voters don’t need to provide a reason to vote absentee and registered voters can request their ballots anytime between now and Thursday, Nov. 1. Maine is one of 32 states, and the District of Columbia, where any qualified voter may vote before Election Day without an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Statistics show that in 1972, just 4 percent of voters cast ballots before Election Day, and by 2008, that number had grown to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Elections Project at George Mason University.
“If you’re a campaign and you’ve got the resources to do it, it makes sense to lock in support as early as possible,” Brewer said.
The downside for voters? You’re out of luck if you change your mind.
During the 2010 governor’s race, independent Eliot Cutler had a late surge that brought him to within two percentage points of the winner, Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Cutler made a late appeal to supporters of Democrat Libby Mitchell — even going as far as trying to find a way to allow them to change their votes — but many had voted early for Mitchell.
In Gardiner, City Clerk Deirdre Berglund estimates one-third of the city’s 4,360 registered voters will cast ballots before the election. In Augusta, the percentage could go as high as 50 percent, based on the number of requests received so far, said City Clerk Barbara Wardwell.
The city has already sent out 900 ballots and has 13,500 registered voters.
“I think local candidates are a lot more active and that’s bringing people in,” she said.
The pace in Waterville appears to be on track for a typical presidential election, said Clerk Patti Dubois. They’ve gotten 700 requests for ballots and have seen a steady stream of voters coming to City Hall to vote, she said. She estimates that 40 percent of the city’s 10,000-plus registered voters will cast absentee ballots.
In the same-sex marriage campaign, both sides are encouraging supporters to cast their ballots now. In email messages sent last week, EqualityMaine and the Christian Civic League of Maine provided online links to request an absentee ballot.
Both major political parties downplayed their efforts to drive early turnout, saying they have not done more this year than in years past.
On the Republican side, state party Chairman Charlie Webster said they aren’t worried about turnout in a presidential year.
“We did a small, targeted mailing,” he said. “We didn’t have lots of money to do it. I’ve never been very concerned about a presidential year that people wouldn’t vote.”
Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party, said their voter outreach was similar to what they’ve done in the past. But she added that national efforts to change voting regulations has heightened awareness of the rules around absentee voting, voter registration and voting on Election Day.
In Maine, Democrats and others launched a successful people’s veto campaign last year to overturn a law passed by Republicans that would have banned same-day voter registration. Nationally, the courts have recently ruled on proposed changes to voting regulations in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin and the presidential battleground state of Ohio.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted had eliminated early voting on the three days prior to the election, but courts ruled to reinstate them.
Husted is appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to The Associated Press.
In Maine, a state known for high voter turnout, all indications point to robust participation in a year that features a presidential race, an open U.S. Senate seat, and Question 1, which asks voters if they want to allow the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Lisa Daniels, 28, voted at Augusta City Hall last week while visiting family in the area. Her husband is stationed in Japan as part of a military assignment and she wanted to exercise her right to vote before she heads back overseas.
“I think we should be responsible,” she said. “Whoever we put in office, they make the rules.”
Susan Cover — 621-5643