Election clerks reported a steady stream of voters casting their ballots Monday during the first day of in-person early voting in Maine.

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked record interest among Mainers in utilizing the state’s absentee ballot process, which allows voters to vote early by mail or in person for any reason. Requests for absentee ballots had topped 277,000 as of Friday, which already represents more than one-quarter of registered voters in Maine.

While most of those ballots will be mailed back or dropped off in the coming weeks, towns and cities across Maine began offering in-person voting on Monday using absentee ballots.

“It’s going really well,” said Katherine Jones, city clerk in Portland, where some voters lined up before the 9 a.m. opening of Merrill Auditorium to cast ballots. “It’s been a steady line all day.”

Lewiston City Clerk Kathleen Montejo said that more than 100 people had cast in-person votes by noon and that she had been seeing “really steady turnout” for most of the day. In Lewiston, staff in the city clerk’s office had set up a “mini polling place” with seven booths in City Hall, as they have during previous elections.

“There is definitely a lot more interest than we have seen,” Montejo said. “We have been doing this process for about 10 years now, with the mini-polling place, and this is definitely the busiest that we have seen.”

And in Scarborough, voters were also lined up – but physically distanced as a precaution against COVID-19 – when doors opened on Monday morning.

“It didn’t last long and we have been steady ever since,” Scarborough Town Clerk Tody Justice said.

The Maine Secretary of State’s Office is expecting up to 60 percent of this year’s ballots to be cast via the absentee process. That would be about 450,000 ballots, based on voter participation during the 2016 presidential and congressional contests.

Maine allows absentee ballots to be filled out remotely – and then mailed back or deposited in secure drop-off boxes – or to be filled out in-person. Unlike in some other states, Maine voters do not need an excuse to cast an absentee ballot.

Maine has roughly 1 million registered voters and consistently has among the highest voter participation rates in the nation during presidential election years.

The Secretary of State’s Office began sending ballots to municipal clerks on Sept. 25 and shipped the last batch over the weekend, with first priority given to towns or cities with the highest demand for absentee ballots.

The state recently launched an online tracking service that will allow people to check on the status of their absentee ballots. In addition to reducing calls to clerks’ offices, the tracking system is aimed at reassuring voters by allowing them to see if their requested ballot is on the way and, later, if the completed ballot has been received and accepted by their local clerks.

The deadline to request an absentee ballot online or by phone is Oct. 29, but voters can pick up an absentee ballot through 5 p.m. on Oct. 30. Completed ballots must be returned to election officials no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3.

But Kristen Muszynski, spokeswoman for Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, pointed out that the U.S. Postal Service recommends individuals request ballots by Oct. 19 if they are having them sent by mail. The postal service then recommends putting completed ballots in the mail at least seven days before Election Day to ensure they are returned on time.

“If you plan to vote absentee, that is a decision you should be making very soon and putting in your request,” Muszynski said.

The only deadline for in-person absentee voting is 5 p.m. Oct. 30, which is when municipalities must cease accepting in-person absentee ballots. But not all towns are currently offering in-person early voting, so Dunlap’s office recommends checking with clerks beforehand.

Voting by mail and absentee balloting has become more controversial this year as President Trump has repeatedly warned of potential fraud without providing any evidence to back up his claims. Both practices have been used in a variety of forms throughout the United States for years without any incidences of widespread fraud.

With the COVID-19 pandemic driving unprecedented demand for absentee ballots in Maine, the state is allowing municipal clerks to begin processing ballots before Nov. 3 in order to speed up the vote tabulation on Election Day.

Towns and cities can begin processing absentee ballots up to one week before Nov. 3 but must follow a strict process when opening, counting and securely storing ballots. That includes separating the envelope containing voter information from the actual ballots prior to scanning or counting the ballots to ensure voter anonymity.

Those early votes will not be tabulated until election night, however, even if they are fed into scanning machines beforehand. Clerks will also keep track of which voters have returned completed absentee ballots to prevent them from casting more than one ballot during the election.

Augusta City Clerk Kelly Gooldrup said her staff mailed out roughly 4,000 absentee ballots between Saturday and Monday morning. And they plan to begin processing those ballots as early as possible in order to help reduce the crunch on Nov. 3.

“We are going to do the full week before,” Gooldrup said. “They allow us up to seven days and we will take the full seven days.”

For more information on requesting absentee ballots, registering to vote or the voting process in Maine, go to www.maine.gov/sos/cec.

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