An election worker sorts absentee ballots at Portland City Hall four days before Maine’s primary elections in July. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

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

A record number of Maine voters will cast their votes this November by turning in absentee ballots.

Both public health and election officials have encouraged absentee voting as way to limit exposure and control the spread of COVID-19.

As of last week, more than 230,000 Maine voters had requested absentee ballots, and election officials have said that number could grow to more than 600,000 of the state’s 1.06 million registered voters, a record 57 percent.

Many voters are wondering what happens to their absentee ballot once it gets back to their town or city election official in Maine.

Here’s what you need to know:

When will my ballot be counted?

Normally, election officials can begin processing absentee ballots four days before Election Day, with permission from Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s office.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the historic surge in absentee ballot requests in Maine and across the country, Gov. Janet Mills has extended the early processing time for absentee ballots. She issued an executive order to allow local election officials up to seven days for early processing for absentee ballots – but they still need to request permission from Dunlap’s office to do this.

A flood of absentee ballots during the July 16 primary made some cities and towns struggle to get all the absentee ballots processed quickly, including in the city of Portland – which has the largest number of registered voters in Maine.

Jessica Grondin, a spokeswoman for the city, said a new high-speed tabulation machine and the extra days provided to process ballots under the governor’s executive order would help the city speed its work and help produce faster results.

“I’m not so sure that I would go as far to say that we will have them on election night, but I think that is certainly the goal,” Grondin said.

So, are they actually counting my vote when they process my absentee ballot?

No. Early processing of ballots entails several steps, but disclosing vote totals in any race is not part of that process. That data is kept secure in the tabulation machine until after the polls close on Election Day.

So how does that all work?

When you request an absentee ballot, both the date of your request and the date the ballot was sent to you are recorded on your town’s voter list.

When you return your completed ballot by mail or in person, the clerk checks to make sure you signed the back of the return envelope and records the date the ballot came back on the municipal voter list.

No envelopes will be opened until at least seven days before the election in 2020.

What if I forget to sign the back of the return envelope for my absentee ballot?

The state has issued guidance that directs town clerks to make a “good faith effort” to notify you as quickly as possible of the missing signature before they mark your ballot as rejected. They may try to contact you using the email address or telephone number you provide on your application for an absentee ballot.

The state’s online absentee ballot system tracking system, introduced Monday, will show you if your ballot is rejected, but it won’t show why – so you would need to check with your local election officials.

What happens when the envelope with my ballot is opened?

Once processing ballots is authorized by the Secretary of State’s Office, election officials open the envelopes and remove the folded ballots, stacking them in piles. The ballots remain folded in these stacks but are now separated from the envelopes they came in.

“The folded ballot goes into one sorting bin and the empty envelope goes into another sorting  bin,” says Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo. “After you have 25 to 50 folded ballots in a sorting bin, then they are removed, unfolded and flattened. This way, the workers have no idea which ballot came from  which envelope, so the privacy of how the voter marked their ballot is maintained and protected.”

Those flattened ballots are then fed into tabulation machines – the same machines that are used in polling places on Election Day.

No poll worker will know which ballot came from which envelope, so how a person voted can’t be disclosed. Clerks said the volume of ballots they are dealing with also makes it impossible for poll workers to even attempt to figure that out.

Are the results from absentee ballots tallied as they are processed?

No, the data from the machine, the tally for the day’s count, is not extracted.

All that’s known is the total number of ballots processed through the machine. Those ballots are then removed from the machine that day and are stored in state-issued ballot boxes that are both sealed and locked.

“No totals are run until Election night,” says Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin. “The tabulators are locked and put in secure areas accessible only by the clerk until election night.”

Once all the absentee ballots are counted, the vote totals are then added to the totals from in-person voting on Election Day, after the polls close.

“There are processing logs that record the number of ballots processed each day but there are no tallies done until after 8 p.m. election night,” Goodwin said.

How would I know if the clerk got my absentee ballot in the first place?

Monday, Maine launched a new absentee ballot tracking system, that allows voters to see where their absentee ballot is in the process. You can look it up online.

Next: What if I request an absentee ballot and change my mind? Can I still vote in person?

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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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 2 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2020, to correct the procedure followed if a voter forgets to sign the back of the return envelope for an absentee ballot.

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