The drive to promote absentee voting in November is creating confusion among Maine voters who are receiving multiple mailings, emails or even text messages from political groups urging them to request an absentee ballot – even after they have already done so.

Portland City Clerk Kathy Jones said her office has been “bombarded” with calls from concerned residents who have received such mailers.

Chris Horne, a staffer in the Portland City Clerk’s Office, holds a blank application for an absentee ballot for the 2020 election Thursday from behind a clear plastic barrier at the office’s temporary location in Merrill Auditorium. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Jones said the city doesn’t want to discourage voters from requesting absentee ballots, but it also doesn’t want them to make multiple and repeated requests that bog down a system that already is hard-pressed to process a record number of ballot requests from voters.

Demand for absentee ballots is up, as both public health and election officials have promoted it as a way to limit exposure to COVID-19. Gathering restrictions imposed because of the pandemic also are likely to make in-person voting a more time-consuming process, as indoor polling places are limited to a maximum of 50 people, including poll workers, at any one time.

Meanwhile, President Trump and some of his Republican supporters have repeatedly attacked mail-in voting systems, alleging without evidence that they are ripe for voter fraud while drawing confusing distinctions between states that mail all voters a ballot, and states like Maine that only send ballots to registered voters who request them.

Additionally, the ongoing U.S. Postal Service mail delays and controversy have undermined Americans’ confidence in the absentee voting processes, which depend heavily on the service to quickly deliver not only completed ballots to municipal clerks, but also ballot requests to voters and in some states, including Maine, voter registration applications.

Jones, the Portland clerk, said some voters have received as many as five absentee ballot applications from political campaigns or get-out-the-vote groups in a single day.

“They are also getting these text messages saying their absentee ballot hasn’t been processed yet,” Jones said. None of the mail with ballot request applications is coming from the state or municipalities, Jones said.

Some towns, including Cumberland, are trying to educate voters by publishing explanations on municipal websites.

“Multiple organizations are distributing these forms,” Cumberland warns in its message to voters. “They are not coming from the Town of Cumberland or the State of Maine, but they are legitimate forms that can be used to request your ballot.” The clarification goes on to state, however, that duplicate requests from the same voter will be rejected.

The problem appears to be widespread, said Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

Muszynski said the state also has added information to the secretary of state’s Frequently Asked Questions page for absentee voting, stating that neither state nor city officials are sending mail to voters that promotes absentee voting. She said the state also does not disclose who has requested an absentee ballot to any political campaign or other group that is promoting voter turnout or absentee voting.

“Thus, they have no way of knowing whether or not you have already requested your absentee ballot,” the secretary of state’s website reads. “You can disregard the mailing, or if you have not yet requested your ballot and you choose to use the form, make sure that the envelope mails the application directly to your municipal clerk for processing.”

The statement also urges voters not to file duplicate ballot requests “as the review and rejection process of subsequent requests will result in unnecessary work for your municipal clerk. You need only submit one request.”

Maine law does not allow the general public access to a registered voter’s contact information, but it does permit candidates, campaigns, political parties and get-out-the-vote organizations to purchase the records in its central voter registry, including names, mailing addresses, party affiliation, phone numbers and email addresses, if a voter includes that information on their voter registration application.

Muszynski also said some of the campaigns may be using outdated and inaccurate information from older voter registries or from voter lists created outside of the registry and shared by parties, candidates and campaigns.

Biddeford City Clerk Carmen Morris said she issued a statement to voters and the City Council on Wednesday night about the issue, and the city is advising voters on social media and elsewhere that if they have already requested a ballot, they have nothing to worry about.

“Please be assured that if you have already submitted your absentee ballot request to the City Clerk’s Office, you do not need to fill out any additional forms,” Morris said in her statement to voters. “You will receive your ballot in the mail once ballots are available in early October.”

Because absentee ballots won’t be going out until early October, voters may be confused by campaign mail or texts saying their ballots haven’t been processed.

Morris said her office and those of other clerks in Maine, who run elections locally, are already processing record numbers of ballot requests. She said when duplicate requests are made, clerks still have to attach them to a previous request and document that the original request was made.

She said between 25 to 30 voters a day are filing multiple ballot requests, and she and her staff field between 20 to 25 phone calls a day from voters with questions about campaign mail and absentee ballots.

“Everybody is still only getting one ballot,” Morris said. “But in some cases we’ve seen people make as many as four or five requests. It’s really confusing for voters and it’s unfortunate.”

Nearly 200,000 Maine voters have already requested ballots. In Portland, Jones said the clerk’s office had processed 13,771 absentee ballot requests and had another 3,000 to 4,000 waiting to be done as of Thursday. Voters can request an absentee ballot online or by phone until Oct. 29.

In Maine, completed ballots can be mailed back or hand-delivered to a pre-approved drop box at your town or city hall or returned in person to the municipal clerk anytime during business hours on or before 8 p.m. on Election Day. Election and postal officials are urging voters who plan to mail their ballots back to do so at least 15 days before Election Day. Because the ballots can be several pages long, it’s a good idea to make sure the envelope has sufficient postage.

Dunlap has estimated that as many as 600,000 of Maine’s just over 1 million registered voters – or about 60 percent of eligible voters – will choose to cast absentee ballots in November.

“Of course we don’t want to discourage any voter from requesting a ballot, but we also don’t want them to make multiple requests,” Jones said.

She said one mailing that went out last week had phones, “ringing off the hook.”

“It’s sad because it’s some of our elderly voters and some of them have made three or four requests when we already have them in our system,” she said.

Orono Town Clerk Sherry Crosby, president of the Maine Town and City Clerks Association, said the organization is trying to work behind the scenes with political campaigns that are mailing ballot request applications to voters.

“We want to make sure we are all sending out the same message and that you only need to make one absentee ballot request,” Crosby said.

Crosby believes that the campaigns are largely well-intended and clerks want all eligible voters to have access to their polling place, either in-person or remotely.

“But we are feeling concerned we are seeing a duplication of effort here, as it is happening all over the state and it is creating confusion,” Crosby said. “People are calling and asking, ‘Did I make a mistake? Did you not get my request? Did you not put my request through?’ Because they continue to get multiple ballot requests in the mail.”

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