People wait in line to vote at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

More than 133,000 Mainers already have voted by absentee ballot with three weeks left before Election Day, and Democrats are far outpacing Republicans in both requesting and returning ballots.

Both public health experts and election officials have encouraged voters to use Maine’s no-excuse absentee voting system as a way to eliminate the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 during in-person voting.

Democrats account for more than half of the total ballots returned so far, or about 78,000 compared to just over 24,000 returned by Republicans, according to data released by the Secretary of State on Tuesday.

Democrats have also steadily outpaced Republicans in absentee ballot requests. As of Tuesday, Democrats had requested 188,280 ballots compared to 67,405 for Republicans while voters not enrolled in any party requested 86,868 ballots and Green Party voters had requested 11,517. So far, 798 ballot requests have been rejected by election officials because they did not meet legal requirements.

The early absentee voting comes in an election marked by confusion and reduced voter confidence in the electoral system, fueled in part by President Trump’s repeated allegations of fraud in mail balloting – although he has presented no evidence to back up those claims. Sharp partisan division over Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and a U.S economy that’s been rocked by high infection rates have combined to increase voter interest in 2020.

Amid the strong interest in absentee voting, the city of Portland announced expanded hours Tuesday for the city clerk’s office. The office will be open until 7 p.m. this Thursday and next Thursday, Oct. 22, to allow voters to return their absentee ballots. In-person voting can be done from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The office will also be open the next two Saturdays, Oct. 17 and Oct. 24, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. for absentee voting and voter registration. It will also be open until 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 29 for the same purpose.

The last day for in-person absentee voting will be Friday, Oct. 30. In-person absentee voting involves a voter requesting and casting their absentee ballot at the same time, rather than receiving it in the mail and then returning it by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Voters enter Portland’s Merrill Auditorium to cast their ballots Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The city also said an absentee ballot drop box would be installed outside of Merrill Auditorium as soon as it arrives and that will be available for ballot drop-off 24 hours a day until Election Day.

Many cities and towns across the state have installed drop boxes to help voters ensure their ballots are returned on time while avoiding a possibly crowded polling place.

The state data released Tuesday showed most voters were hand-delivering their completed absentee ballots instead of having them delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. Roughly 63,200 ballots were hand-delivered by voters, compared to about 35,000 ballots returned in the mail. Those figures likely reflect widely held concerns that ballots sent by mail could be lost or delayed and not arrive by the 8 p.m. deadline on Election Day.

On Wednesday, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral arguments in a case that would allow ballots postmarked on or by Election Day to be counted, even if they come in after polls close. Current Maine law does not allow any ballots returned after 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.

In all, 345,660 absentee ballot requests have been fulfilled by local election officials for the Nov. 3 election, which features the presidential race and a closely watched battle for one of Maine’s two U.S. Senate seats. That’s nearly 100,000 more absentee voters than participated in the 2016 presidential election in Maine.

Residents wait in line to vote at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap has estimated as many as 500,000 to 600,000 of the state’s 1.06 million registered voters will cast their ballots remotely. That would equal roughly 57 percent of the electorate.

Traditional in-person voting will still be going on in Maine on Election Day, although polling places will be facing coronavirus-related restrictions, including occupancy limits, facial covering requirements, Plexiglass barriers for election officials and 6-foot spacing for voting booths, among other protections.

Dunlap reassured voters last week that they could vote in-person safely, noting that in-person voting during Maine’s unusual July primary did not result in any COVID-19 outbreaks associated with polling places.

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