Mainers overwhelmingly backed bonds for transportation and rural broadband expansion Tuesday, and Republicans picked businessman and former state Rep. Dale Crafts of Lisbon to be their candidate to take on 2nd Congressional District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in November.

Democrats, meanwhile, overwhelmingly supported state House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport to challenge Sen. Susan Collins in what promises to be a high-stakes battle for control of the U.S. Senate and the most expensive race in Maine history.

But among the big stories to come out of Tuesday’s election was the conduct of the election itself. Despite a pandemic that disrupted government operations and pushed the state primary into midsummer, about 25 percent of eligible voters turned out, which is close to a record in a state primary.

The term “turned out” doesn’t fully explain their participation, because in-person turnout was light at many of the polling places that are usually the busiest. But a record number of voters took advantage of Maine’s no-excuse absentee ballot process, and either mailed in their ballot or dropped it off at a municipal office. This allowed more people to participate in an important election, while minimizing the spread of the coronavirus among voters and poll workers.

Though the final numbers are still being gathered, more than 200,000 people requested absentee ballots in the time leading up to the election, and about half of them had been returned by Monday. But because of the COVID-19 emergency orders, voters could return their completed ballots to their municipal office right up until the close of the polls Tuesday night, and voters availed themselves of that option in a number of districts.

Those who chose to vote in person found measures in place to maintain social distancing, something that would have been much more difficult if so many other people hadn’t chosen to vote a different way.

The July 14 primary was a good dry run for the general election on Nov. 3, when three times as many voters are expected to participate. In a typical year, Maine is typically one of the national leaders in voter turnout, and Tuesday’s primary shows that there is more than usual interest in voting in this election cycle. The state should make sure that everyone has an opportunity to do so safely.

One important way to build on the success of Tuesday’s election will be to further expand the use of absentee ballots in the fall. That won’t be as easy as it sounds, since President Trump has falsely called into question the security of mail-in voting, leading many Republicans to lose confidence in the system. In Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky, use of absentee voting by Democrats was twice that of the Republicans. If that carries into the fall, Republicans could be doing themselves a disservice if a second-wave COVID outbreak forces voters to stay home.

Preparing for the November election is going to take money to pay for protective equipment and to hire more poll workers to process absentee ballots. The state should also pay the return postage on absentee ballots – you shouldn’t have to buy a stamp to vote.

But there is one improvement that won’t cost anything: Voters need to hear bipartisan encouragement to use the absentee process, to protect their health and make the poling places less crowded and safer on Election Day.


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