Editor’s note: One in a frequent series of stories examining Maine’s voting system.

By the end of next week, more than a quarter-million Maine voters will likely have requested absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election.

Some voters filed their requests weeks ago and may be wondering why they have not received their ballots yet, with the election just 40 days away.

Here’s what’s happening with those ballots:

Maine’s election laws require the secretary of state to get absentee ballots to local election officials at least 30 days before the election. This year, that date is Oct. 3.

The secretary of state’s online absentee voting guide says: “Printed ballots are sent out to the clerks 30 days prior to Election Day and they begin to mail them out shortly thereafter.” Actually, the ballots can be sent earlier if they are ready, and Kristen Muszynski, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, said ballots have begun going out to town and city clerks, who will then package those ballots with any local election ballots before mailing them to voters.

In October, Dunlap’s office will also be rolling out a new system that will allow voters to track where their absentee ballot is in the process. Full details on that will be released soon as well, Muszynski said.

Maine’s largest cities and towns will be the first to receive absentee ballots, and the Secretary of State’s Office began distributing them Thursday.

“That’s how it’s been prioritized, recognizing those cities have the largest number of absentee ballots to get out,” Muszynski said.

Voters would likely begin seeing their ballots in the mail in early October, she said, but that depends on local election officials and their staffs, who need processing time to ensure they are sending each voter the right ballot for their voting district.

Cities like Portland that have multiple legislative districts, for example, will have different ballots for each state House or Senate district, as well as the federal election candidates.

Clerks will need to include any local ballots and instructions for those ballots, address envelopes to voters, and then mail them. Some cities and towns in Maine are also providing postage for ballot return envelopes, and that will need to be applied as well.

Dunlap’s office has also already distributed 4,536 absentee ballots to Maine voters, largely members of the U.S. military who live and work overseas. The deadline for distribution of those ballots under federal law was Sept. 19.

This week the number of requests for absentee ballots statewide topped 230,000 – surpassing a recent record for requests in an unusual primary election that was moved from June to July to guard against the spread of COVID-19.

Maine is one of several states with a no-excuse absentee voting law, and election officials are encouraging voters to use absentee voting as a way to limit exposure to the coronavirus for polling-place workers and the public.

In all, Dunlap predicts as many as 600,000 of Maine’s 1.06 million registered voters, or about 57 percent, might vote remotely in 2020 – a phenomenon that is also playing out across the nation. Demand for absentee ballots is high because of the pandemic and despite unfounded allegations of mail-voting fraud by President Trump and some of his Republican allies.

As of Tuesday, Democrats in Maine had asked for more than 133,000 ballots compared to just over 37,000 requested by Republicans.

While Maine’s law requires Dunlap to get ballots to clerks at least 30 days before the election, other states have both earlier and later deadlines.

For example, North Carolina allows ballots to be distributed 60 days before elections, while other states allow 45 days. A handful of states, including Massachusetts, have even shorter distribution times of 21 days or less, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which polled election officials in all 50 states in August.

Absentee ballot requests made after Oct. 3 will likely be mailed within seven to 10 business days of the request. But the deadline to make an absentee ballot request online or by phone is 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29.

Ballots requested that late, however, should be hand-returned to local election officials before Election Day as it is unlikely there will be enough time to mail the ballot back.

Some towns have also installed secure drop boxes and others have extended their in-person absentee ballot voting – so voters can go in-person and request and cast an absentee ballot ahead of Election Day at their town or city hall, as soon as ballots become available to clerks.

Town and city clerks have been inundated with phone calls for information – adding confusion to the mix are ongoing efforts by candidates, political parties and get-out-the-vote campaigns that are mailing voters absentee ballot request applications, many to voters who have already requested a ballot.

Clerks and Dunlap are urging voters to trust the request system and not file multiple or duplicate requests for a ballot as each request still needs to processed, filed and denied if a previous request was already made and approved.

Muszynski said voter concerns, doubts and confusion have added to the workload for clerks and election officials during an already busier-than-normal election cycle. She said many voters have confidence in Maine’s system and in their local city and town clerks, who many voters have known for years.

“But there is a lot of wacky stuff on the national level and in the national media and it is causing people to get concerned about issues that are just not the way we do things here in Maine,” Muszynski said.

Next: When do they start counting absentee ballots?

Do you have a question about Maine’s election system or how your vote will be counted? Send it to [email protected]

 

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