A higher than anticipated voter turnout for Maine’s first presidential primary in 20 years caused polling places in several communities to run out of Democratic primary ballots Tuesday.

State and local election officials say both the Democratic presidential primary and the referendum on a law requiring mandatory childhood vaccines seemed to be driving voters to the polls on Super Tuesday.

“The voter turnout has been much higher than anticipated,” Kristen Muszynski, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said Tuesday night. Muszynski said several towns reported running out of ballots Tuesday, but she was unable to be more specific as to the number of towns affected.

Among the communities and polling places that ran out of ballots were the Deering High School polling place in Portland, the town of Freeport, and the tiny community of Cranberry Isles off the coast of Southwest Harbor.

“It just seems wrong that we ran out of ballots,” said Cranberry Isles resident Laurie Dobson, who voted in the Democratic primary, but had to wait for a photocopied ballot. “Every state in the United States should have been on alert because of the caucus disaster in Iowa.”

Muszynski said the Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions, which is a department of the Secretary of State’s Office, gave authorization to several communities, which were running low on ballots, to photocopy the ballots.

Maine law allows that to happen, but requires that photocopied ballots be counted by hand – a process that is more time-consuming than using a machine to tabulate ballots.

The shortage mostly affected Democratic presidential primary ballots, Muszynski said. The Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions determines how many of each party’s primary ballots to supply to each town, she said, basing its allocations on 60 percent of the registered voters in each party in that municipality.

“The turnout was much higher than 60 percent in some towns,” she said. A final tally on the actual number of votes cast statewide won’t be known for at least three days.

“We weren’t sure what the voter turnout would be,” Muszynski said. “After all, this was the first primary Maine has had in 20 years.”

Muszynski and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap visited several polling places, including Portland, Lewiston, Richmond, Waterville and Bangor on Tuesday, and everywhere they went they encountered lengthy lines. Anecdotally, Muszynski said many of the voters they met were registering to vote, either because they had not voted before or because they wanted to enroll as Democrats to vote in the primary.

Tuesday marked the first time in two decades that Mainers used a primary system to express their presidential preference. After high turnout during the 2016 presidential caucuses led to confusion and long delays in some locations, including the city of Portland, state lawmakers voted last year to join the vast majority of states that use statewide presidential primary elections.

Registered Democrats had their choice of five candidates on Tuesday’s ballot who are still actively campaigning for the party’s nomination: Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Several others, including Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, still appeared on the ballot but dropped out of the race after earlier primaries and caucuses.

President Trump was the only Republican candidate on Maine’s primary ballot.

Because Maine has “closed primaries,” only individuals registered as Democrats or Republicans can cast ballots in their respective party contests.

Unenrolled voters can enroll in a party at the polls, as can individuals registering to vote for the first time on Election Day. But registered Democrats, Republicans or Green Independent voters cannot change their party affiliation at the polls in order to participate in another primary.

 

Super Tuesday voting on March 3 at Scarborough High School. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine was one of 14 states participating in the Super Tuesday presidential primaries.

Maine voters were also considering Question 1, a “people’s veto” that sought to overturn a law that requires children to be vaccinated to attend school unless they have a medical exemption. The referendum lost, with more than 70 percent voting no, meaning the law removing philosophical and religious exemptions to school-required vaccinations will take effect in 2021.

In Portland, voters also were being asked to consider expanding ranked-choice voting to all City Council and school board races. That referendum passed, with nearly 80 percent of the city’s voters supporting it.

City Clerk Katherine Jones said Tuesday night that election workers had to photocopy more than 600 ballots to make up for the shortage. Jones said state and local election officials may have underestimated the number of unenrolled Maine voters who showed up at the polls to join a political party.

June Escott, 87, of Scarborough fills out a ballot during Super Tuesday voting on March 3 at Scarborough High School.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer  Buy this Photo

Late Tuesday afternoon, a line of about 40 people had formed on Myrtle Street, which runs next to the Portland City Hall polling place. Frank Spring, a city election official, was outside the building offering assistance to voters. Spring said there had been a long line outside the polling place for most of the day, adding that most of those people waiting in line were there to register to vote or to enroll in a political party. People, who were already registered, were allowed to go to the head of the line to cast ballots.

As of Thursday evening, 56,146 registered voters had requested absentee ballots and 37,127 of those had been returned, according to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.

In Buxton, the town’s single polling location at town hall opened at 6 a.m. Within 20 minutes, a handful of residents had already stopped by to cast their ballots. Outside, a candidate bundled against the early morning chill collected signatures to get his name on the ballot.

Buxton Town Clerk John Myers said just over 300 residents voted by absentee ballot. He expected at least another 1,000 of the town’s 6,300 registered voters to vote on Tuesday.

“We could be surprised, it could be higher,” Myers said, noting that Question 1 is likely to bring out some people who may not otherwise have voted.

Turnout at South Portland seemed to be better than expected a couple hours after polls opened, said City Clerk Emily Scully. Some 1,400 absentee ballots had been turned in beforehand, and significant lines of voters were reported at the city’s four polling places Tuesday morning.

Voting at South Portland’s Boys & Girls Club on Broadway was “exceeding expectations” by around 9 a.m., said Phil Gaven, ward clerk for the city’s District One. Gaven said more than 260 people had voted and about 30 people were waiting in line. By 8:30 a.m. there were more than 60 people in line at South Portland Community Center, the polling place for the city’s District Three and District Four.

Since the last presidential primary in Maine was two decades ago, officials didn’t really know what kind of turnout to expect, Scully said. The turnout for the Democratic Caucus in South Portland in 2016 was 1,250, Scully said.

Fran and Jean Ouellette were among the voters casting ballots at the South Portland Community Center Tuesday morning. They were drawn to vote against Question 1.

“I’m a registered nurse,” Fran Ouellette said. “I don’t want to go backwards and put everyone in danger. And not just kids. Elderly people, too. I remember how it was. I don’t want everyone to get sick.”

The parking lot was full at the polls at Biddeford high school and a steady stream of voters came in to cast ballots Tuesday morning. City Clerk Carmen Morris said she didn’t know what kind of turnout to expect because it is the first March election in about two decades.

But after the city issued more than 1,000 early voting ballots, she guessed voter interest was high.

“Coming into today I figured it would be pretty steady,” Morris said.

Kerry Drach points out a ballot box to Paige Nygaard after they marked their ballots at Reiche Community School on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Morris said some voters were still unsure about how to vote on the referendum, but media coverage in the last week may have cleared it up for many people. Biddeford ward clerks said they had to help a number of voters understand the question.

Voting was steady Tuesday morning at Brunswick Junior High School, the town’s polling place. Town Clerk Fran Smith said 1,600 absentee ballots were issued, which was high number for a primary election.

Smith said there had been a lot of voter activity in the days leading up to Election Day as well, but she hasn’t analyzed whether most are new voters or voters who might be registering with a party or switching parties.

“A lot of people are enrolling in political parties,” Smith said.

At least 40 high school students from Brunswick had enrolled prior to Tuesday.

“We hope they come back to vote,” Smith said.

In Harpswell, voter turnout was heavy all morning and interest was likely driven by both the Democratic primary and the vaccine referendum, said Town Clerk Roz Knight.

“There’s been a lot of interest from voters in that question and the issue,” she said.

 

Staff Writers Eric Russell, Ray Routhier, Peter McGuire and Kelley Bouchard contributed to this story.

 

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