Absentee ballots are sorted and counted Friday in the State of Maine Room at Portland City Hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

State and local election officials are expressing confidence that Tuesday’s statewide primary elections will go smoothly, despite record levels of primary absentee voting and increased precautions to protect voters and poll workers from COVID-19.

Kristen Muszynski, spokeswoman for Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, said town and city clerks in the state’s more than 400 municipalities are well-prepared for in-person voting Tuesday, even with the unusual circumstances.

“It’s full speed ahead,” she said.

Democrats statewide will choose among Sara Gideon, Bre Kidman and Betsy Sweet to challenge U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Bangor. In the 2nd Congressional District, Republicans will select Dale Crafts, Adrienne Bennett or Eric Brakey to run against U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Lewiston.

Voters will also cast ballots in 34 legislative primaries and decide on transportation and broadband bonds, as well as school budget referendums and local issues.

Muszynski said unofficial results for most races should be available Tuesday night, except in cases where ranked-choice voting could come into play. That would include several legislative primaries with three candidates and both congressional contests. If none of the candidates in those races receives more than 50 percent of the vote on the first count, ballots will be sent to Augusta for retabulation, a process that could take several days to complete.

Dunlap’s office has been working closely with local officials for the last several weeks to make sure they have what they need to be as safe as possible, including personal protective equipment for poll workers, such as gloves, masks, face shields and hand sanitizer, Muszynski said.

Individual polling stations will be sanitized after each use and voters will be asked to single-use pens for marking their ballots.

Those distributing ballots to voters will also be protected by Plexiglas barriers, much like those now commonplace for retail store cashiers.

A woman who declined to give her name sorts absentee ballots Friday in the State of Maine room at City Hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Voters will be asked to wear facial coverings but will not be denied a ballot if they refuse, Portland City Clerk Kathy Jones said.

“We can ask,” Jones said. “But if they refuse we still need to let them vote.”

This is a statewide policy, according to Muszynski, who said no eligible voter will be denied the right to cast a ballot in Maine.

Maine’s largest cities, Portland and Lewiston, have begun processing record numbers of absentee ballots that have already been cast in the delayed primary election. More than 17,300 Portland voters requested absentee ballots and 9,375 had been returned by the end of last week.

Jones said that compares to about 15,000 total ballots cast during the June 2018 primary election, when voters from both parties selected their respective candidates in a statewide governor’s race. Jones said based on those numbers she is anticipating light voter turnout at Portland’s polling places Tuesday.

“It could be light at the polls,” Jones said, “but one never knows.”

Democratic voters have vastly outpaced their Republican counterparts in making absentee ballot requests, as President Trump has riled his conservative base with unfounded charges of voter fraud by mail-in ballot, prompting many conservative voters to insist on voting in person.

As of Friday, 198,764 voters had requested absentee ballots, with 128,961 of those already returned. Democrats had requested 131,319 ballots compared to 37,435 for Republicans, with the balance of the requests made by unenrolled voters of members of the Green Independent Party. Another 1,133 requests had been rejected. The requests shatter the record for absentee ballots in a primary election in Maine, but fall short of the record for a general election of 244,000 set in 2008.

Those who vote in person will note differences in this election beyond the distancing measures and use of personal protective equipment by poll workers.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo said the socializing that typically occurs in polling places, when citizens linger and chat with city officials and others, is going to be discouraged by poll workers. Lewiston has consolidated its polling places to one location, and if there is a large turnout, keeping voters moving will be important to limit waiting times for others, she said.

But because the election is really a first of its kind for Maine, clerks have no easy gauge to predict turnout.

“Estimating in-person voter turnout at the polls is the million dollar question that everyone is asking,” Montejo said.

Crista Haskell sorts absentee ballots Friday in the State of Maine room at City Hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Montejo said because Lewiston is in a county with community spread of the coronavirus, the polling place will be regularly cleaned and sanitized, including all the “touch points” for voters, like building door handles and polling booth writing surfaces.

She said the unsung heroes of the day will be the citizens who have stepped forward as poll workers, to replace many of the elderly residents who normally did that job but are vulnerable to the coronavirus and were reluctant to work in this primary.

“We simply cannot run the election without them,” Montejo said. “We so appreciate their dedication to their fellow community members.”

Montejo also complimented Dunlap’s office for its support and help in getting towns and cities prepared to run the election as a safely as possible.

Brunswick Town Clerk Fran Smith said town officials and polling place workers will be happy to see their fellow citizens on Tuesday, but she expects there won’t be a lot of “chit chatting” going on.

“We will really be enforcing social distancing,” Smith said. “But you know it’s not like this is a brand new thing that we haven’t already been experiencing in the real world.” Smith said she believes most people are adapting to life during the pandemic and understand things will not be exactly as they were. “This is going to be a different kind of election,” she said. “We are in a different world.”

Absentee ballot sorting and counting takes place Friday in the State of Maine room at City Hall. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Smith added that she also believes the pandemic has helped many people improve their patience. She said whether it’s waiting to go into the grocery store to shop or waiting to go cast a ballot, most Maine people understand that protecting one another from the virus may involve some waiting.

“I know I’ve become a much more patient person in all of this,” Smith said. “And hopefully people exhibit some patience on Election Day.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.