Van Afes of Portland fills out his ballot Tuesday at Merrill Auditorium, where the city of Portland is holding in-person absentee voting and voter registration in advance of the July 14 primaries. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Election officials are concerned that an unprecedented surge in absentee ballots for the July 14 primary will tax their ability to process the results and could lead to delays in determining the winners, possibly for days.

Maine voters had requested 104,047 absentee ballots by the end of last week, a nearly threefold increase over June 2018, when 35,982 absentee ballots were requested for an election that featured both Republican and Democratic primaries for governor.

The results also could be delayed by ranked-choice voting, which will apply if no candidate gets a majority in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary and the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary.

Town clerks can request permission to begin processing absentee ballots up to four days before election day, but the task of counting them still will be daunting this year because of the sheer volume. Under state law, cities and towns have three days to process and return official results to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.

If Maine needs extra time to count its ballots in July, it will be in good company, as at least five states that already have held primary elections this year – including Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Georgia, Nevada and New York – saw final results delayed as officials wrestled with an onslaught of absentee ballots, according to a recent report in the Washington Post.

Since June 3, more than 60,000 new absentee ballot requests have been made in Maine and voters can still request a ballot up until the day of the election under an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills in April. The order changed the date of the primary election from June 9 to July 14 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While in-person voting will still be available, town and city clerks and the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, have been encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots to help protect poll workers and voters from the virus.

“It’s way above what it’s ever been before,” Dunlap said of the number of absentee ballot requests. He said concern over the virus was accelerating an ongoing trend of increasing use of absentee voting. The Legislature has steadily relaxed the requirements for filing an absentee ballot, which at one time could only be obtained if a voter signed a sworn affidavit about why they couldn’t vote in person.

“And by the way, going to deer camp didn’t count,” Dunlap said.

A side of a voting booth is taped off to ensure social distancing during in-person absentee voting at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Now, any registered Maine voter can obtain an absentee ballot with a simple request online, by mail or over the phone.

The use of ranked-choice voting also could add to the delays in declaring winners in Maine’s two Congressional primaries.

The state’s ranked-choice voting law requires a candidate to obtain at least 50 percent of the vote plus one to win outright. If no one wins a majority after the first tally, election officials in Augusta must retabulate the results by eliminating the last-place finisher from contention and redistributing that candidate’s votes based each voter’s second-choice ranking. This process continues – with non-viable candidates eliminated from the bottom up and their votes reallocated – until someone achieves a majority.

Portland City Clerk Katherine Jones said 12,361 voters in the city had requested absentee ballots so far, compared to a total of 1,683 in 2018. Processing those requests and getting them out to voters has inundated her staff.

“We have been working nights and weekends to try to stay afloat,” Jones said in an email Tuesday. “As far as processing the absentees, I believe we will be longer than normal, the city has two ballots, the state has a party ballot and a bond question, so times 12,361 by four. That is how many ballots we will have to feed through the machines and we still have two weeks to go.”

Portland voters, and voters in many other Maine municipalities, will not only select Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate race, but also are ratifying town and local school district budgets, choosing candidates from both parties in about 35 legislative primaries and deciding local ballot initiatives. For some towns, that means as many as 10 different ballots will have to be sent out to voters and then processed when they are mailed back in.

In Lewiston, City Clerk Kathy Montejo, said she, too, was seeing a major uptick in absentee voting, with 2,915 ballot requests made so far, compared to a total of 837 in June 2018.

“We anticipated it would be higher than a standard state primary election given all of the promotion about voting by absentee due to COVID,” Montejo said. Still she said it will be hard to predict what the actual turnout for the July primary may look like in the end. A former president of the state municipal clerks association, Montejo said a third of all Lewiston ballots are typically cast by absentees – compared to about 50 percent for a town like Scarborough.

“For this election, I would say that all bets are off and we cannot apply that standard ratio,” Montejo said.  “Really difficult to estimate projected in-person voting on July 14.”

In smaller towns, clerks are also wrestling with a dramatic increase in absentee ballot requests and how to process and cover the added mailing costs.

Kennebunk Town Clerk Merton Brown said he usually processes 300 to 350 requests for absentee ballots but was approaching 1,800 by the end of the day Monday. Voters there will receive seven ballots, which cost the town 80 cents to mail. Compounding matters, Brown said many election workers are older and at risk for severe complications from COVID-19 if they were to become infected, so some are bowing out of this election to protect their health.

“This is what all of us wanted,” Brown said. “All of us wanted to have as few people come to the polling place as possible. I don’t think we realized what an impact it was going to have.”

Phillip Incarnato fills out his ballot Tuesday at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Incarnato recently moved back to Maine from New York, so he also registered to vote Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Democratic voters are vastly outpacing Republicans in making requests for absentee ballots in Maine. For the primary, 74,770 Democrats had requested ballots as of June 19, according to the most recent data available from Dunlap’s office. That compares to 15,724 requests from Republicans, 11,839 from unenrolled voters and 1,711 from Green Party members.

Some of the Democratic demand for absentee ballots is being driven by interest in the three-way race among Sara Gideon, Betsy Sweet and Bre Kidman to become the nominee who will challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.  In the 2018 gubernatorial primary election, Democrats also outpaced Republicans in requesting absentee ballots – 18,945 to 11,277.

Other races on the ballot include a Republican primary in the 2nd Congressional District, in which Eric Brakey, Adrienne Bennett and Dale Crafts are competing for the opportunity to challenge incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden. Voters in 35 legislative districts will choose primary candidates for the Maine House or Senate, and transportation and broadband bond issues also will be decided.

The surge in absentee voting comes as President Trump repeatedly claims, without evidence, that voting by mail is subject to fraud. Trump’s assertion could be a factor in the wide gap between Democratic and Republican requests for absentee ballots.

Dunlap pointed out that in Maine, absentee ballots are mailed only to voters who request them and are not automatically mailed to all registered voters, as is the practice in a handful of other states.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham contributed to this report.

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