COVID-19 monitor April Varrieault, left, allows a man to enter Lewiston City Hall to conduct business on the second floor while others wait in line to vote in the first-floor City Council Chamber on Thursday afternoon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Despite nationwide anxiety for an election that could stretch for days without results, town and city clerks in Maine appear optimistic they will have results on hand within a few hours.

The air of calm from election officials remains even as they have seen record-shattering numbers of absentee ballots fueled by the pandemic. And while demands for time and staffing for processing and counting ballots have increased, clerks say Maine benefits from rules that allow municipalities to process them early — a privilege that not all states have.

In some states, ballots can be processed as soon as they are received, but in others, like the “battleground” states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, election workers have to wait until Election Day to begin processing, which coupled with the unprecedented number of absentee ballots this year, could lead to delays.

Other states have rules stipulating that as long as mail-in ballots are postmarked by Election Day, they can be still be counted if they arrive days later. The rules are designed to make the election as accurate as possible, but any delays outside of the ordinary — even during a pandemic — have the potential to stir conspiracy theories or opportunities for politicians to cast doubt on the process.

The Sun Journal spoke with town and city clerks throughout central and western Maine to get a glimpse into what voters should expect on election night, Nov. 3. The takeaway is this: Maine should have results roughly on par with previous presidential elections — it’s the rest of the country we could be waiting for.

‘A SMOOTH ELECTION’ 

While Maine has also seen record numbers of absentee ballots cast, the state allows election officials to begin processing ballots the week prior to Election Day. For Lewiston, which issued its 10,000th absentee ballot this week, City Clerk Kathy Montejo has organized a full day of processing Oct. 31, the Saturday before the election, featuring some 50 election workers at the Lewiston Armory.

She’s expecting to have the city’s results by roughly 11 p.m. election night, barring any complications.

“We’re lucky in Maine that we can do a lot of that early processing ahead of time,” she said. “A lot of what you’re hearing in the national media isn’t necessarily applicable to Maine.”

Lewiston Deputy City Clerk Kelly Brooks empties the official ballot drop box outside City Hall on Thursday afternoon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

In Auburn, City Clerk Sue Clements-Dallaire is hopeful for results by 9 p.m., which would put results in line with previous elections, including years that don’t include the heavy turnouts of a presidential race. The city has issued about 7,500 absentee ballots.

“We all want everything to go smoothly,” she said. “I hope everyone is civil and respectful of one another and if there are lines, I hope people understand that we are all doing the best we can under these unprecedented circumstances. I have faith in our dedicated poll workers and city staff to ensure that we run a smooth election.”

Most clerk’s offices in the region estimate similar timelines, ranging from one to three hours after polls close. In Lisbon, the clerk’s office is shooting for 11 p.m. Turner, Farmington and Livermore are looking at 10 p.m. Officials in some towns, such as Mechanic Falls, Paris and Wales, said they could have results ready as soon as 9 p.m.

Many are expecting large turnouts, but are hoping that the large number of absentee votes will offset the potential for long lines.

Montejo said, however, that a potential delay in results could come from Election Day voting, particularly if voters are still in line to vote past the 8 p.m. closure of polls. She said it’s normally not an issue, but this is not a normal year. She said anyone still in line by 8 p.m. has a right to vote.

Montejo’s chief concern for Election Day is the visuals outside each polling place. With 6 feet between each person standing in line, she’s worried people might be turned away by a seemingly longer line than they might be used to. In response, Lewiston will set up stanchions used at venues that will be used to loop lines, rather than have lines stretch in a single direction.

“We really don’t want people to pull up and be discouraged,” she said.

Voters cast ballots at Lewiston City Hall on Thursday afternoon as others wait in a hallway and line up outside. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Even with the health precautions put in place due to the pandemic — like a 35-voter capacity at all polling locations — Montejo expects the lines to move quickly. She said early voting has shown that because the ballot does not include any local races, state referendum or bond questions, voters are often finished within just a few minutes.

In Rumford, Deputy Clerk Bev Thorne said the single-ballot election has made staffing easier.

“Where there’s only one ballot, we’re only going to have two people at each table,” she said. “All we (need) is one person checking off the name … and one to hand out the ballot,” she said. In contrast, at the election last June, she said the town needed four people at each table because they had eight ballots to deal with, on top of COVID-19.

‘PEOPLE ARE PATIENT’ 

Many see Maine as an outlier in an otherwise volatile election season, as some states deal with threats of voter intimidation or violence leading up to the election. But for small-town Maine, clerks believe voters will remain calm even in the face of longer wait times at the polls.

“We’re Farmington. I think people get along great,” said Town Clerk Leanne Dickey. “I’m not worried about angry mobs. People are pretty patient.”

Montejo said the clerk’s office hasn’t heard many concerns from Lewiston residents. She said part of that might be due to a large grant the city and several other municipalities have received to bolster election preparedness and public information campaigns.

Turner Town Clerk Becky Allaire said she’s received a few concerns about long lines, but said, “with the number of absentee ballots coming in, I’m not sure people will have to worry about long lines.”

In Lisbon, City Clerk Twila Lycette said her only concern is having enough ballots on hand, “because we’re expecting there to be a record turnout.”

For Town Clerk Kayla Alexander in Rangeley, she’s hoping for a “beautiful, sunny day” due to the indoor capacity limits. It has snowed in Rangeley already, Alexander said.

Like Lewiston, towns will begin processing absentee ballots in advance of Nov. 3, like in Farmington, where staff plans to conduct multiple sessions.

No one reported having issues finding election workers.

“Our community has been amazing,” said Livermore Town Clerk Renda Guild. “People have come forward to help, some who have never done so before. They’ve offered to help park cars, deliver meals.”

As for her concerns, Guild said, “I just want people to be safe, to think in the box and help us help them. If we all look out for each other it will be an amazing election. I’ve got a great team.”

Montejo said due to the emphasis on early voting, “It really has been voting month, rather than just voting day,” which election officials hope will allow for some normalcy come Election Day.

Several clerks said they feel ready to take on the challenges, but are also looking forward to Wednesday, Nov. 4, when — hopefully — it’s all over.

In her 23 years in Livermore, Guild said this is one of the hardest elections she’s seen.

Asked if she had any concerns for Election Day, Paris Town Clerk Elizabeth Knox said she doesn’t have any.

“(I) just want it to be over,” she said.

Staff Writers Pam Harnden, Lindsay Tice, Nicole Carter, Matthew Daigle, Bruce Farrin, Donna Perry and Andrea Swiedom also contributed to this report.

COVID-19 monitor Ken Bragg communicates with another monitor at Lewiston City Hall on Thursday to coordinate the flow of voters on the first floor and outside. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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