A woman walks by voting posters displayed in windows of the Portland Public Library along Chestnut Street last week. The posters were created by graphic design and printmaking students at the Maine College of Art. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In two days, tens of thousands of Mainers who haven’t already cast ballots will go to their polling place and participate in one of the most contentious elections in modern times.

The presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is the marquee, but Maine voters also will settle the most expensive U.S. Senate race in their state’s history, decide whether to keep or send home two incumbent U.S. House members and settle state legislative races that decide which party holds majorities in Augusta.

Even though the coronavirus pandemic has upended all facets of life, including voting, overall turnout is expected to be high and may even eclipse the state’s modern record, set in 2004, when 74.9 percent of eligible voters showed up.

“I think we could go beyond that. It’s so hard to predict, though, because we haven’t seen anything like this,” Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said last week.

As of Friday, 477,817 absentee ballots had been returned, dwarfing the total of about 264,000 absentee ballots cast in 2016, which had been a record. Dunlap said the early voting numbers suggest that Election Day may not be as busy as in years past, but he’s prepared.

Maine may not have the same battleground status as Pennsylvania or Florida, but a lot of eyes will be on the state for two reasons:

— The Senate race between four-term incumbent Republican Susan Collins, Democratic challenger Sara Gideon and independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn could determine which party controls the Senate in 2021.

— There are plausible scenarios where a single Electoral College vote in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District could decide the presidential winner.

“The fact that Maine and Nebraska are the only states that split votes and the fact that there are not crazy scenarios where these votes decide the entire thing, gives Maine not just a quirky but a raised profile,” said University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer. “And you could make the case that it’s the most consequential Senate race in the country. Regardless of who wins the presidency, control of the Senate is almost equally important.”

Still, Maine voters – like the rest of the country – may need to be patient. It’s possible, likely even, that the presidential race will not be decided on Election Day. Similarly, the U.S. Senate race in Maine is likely to be unsettled, as well, because of ranked-choice voting.

PRESIDENTIAL CONTEST

Maine only has four Electoral College votes but both campaigns (the Trump campaign, especially) have given the state a lot of attention over the last couple of weeks.

Polls show Biden is almost certain to win Maine overall; he leads by an average of 12 points. But Maine is one of only two states (Nebraska is the other) that divide their electoral votes by congressional district. That means a candidate can win the state – as Democrat Hillary Clinton did four years ago – but lose a district.

Trump won Maine’s more rural, conservative 2nd District by 12 points in 2016, but the race is expected to much closer there this time. Most public polls show Biden leading by 2-4 points, although one poll, conducted by Digital Research Inc. for the Bangor Daily News, showed Trump ahead by 8 points in the 2nd District.

Here’s a not-all-that-farfetched scenario where Maine’s one electoral vote could play an outsized role:

According to the website Real Clear Politics, which aggregates public polling, Biden is likely to win 232 electoral votes from states that are leaning Democrat; Trump looks to net 125 votes from Republican-leaning states. The remaining 181 electoral votes are divided among 13 battleground states, which are divided between Biden and Trump.

Of those states, if Biden were to win Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona, he would net an additional 37 votes, bringing his total to 269. If Trump were to win the others (Texas, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina), he would get to 267 Electoral College votes.

That leaves one vote each in Maine and Nebraska, the only two states that apportion electoral votes by congressional district. If Trump were to win both the 2nd District in Nebraska and the 2nd District in Maine, he would reach 269 to tie Biden.

If there is no winner in the Electoral College, the Constitution states that the decision on president goes to the House of Representatives while the Senate picks the vice president. That could be interesting.

THE SENATE

For all the spending in the Senate race – more than $170 million from the campaigns and the various political action committees supporting them – not much has changed.

Sen. Susan Collins talks aboard her campaign bus in Rangeley during a mid-September tour. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A Colby College poll released in late July showed Gideon with 44 percent support and Collins at 39 percent, with 6 percent favoring another candidate and 12 percent undecided.

A Colby poll released last week showed the number of undecideds has shrunk to 3.6 percent, but Collins had cut into Gideon’s lead only slightly. Gideon had 46.6 percent support and Collins was at 43.4 percent. Other polls have shown similar margins, and Collins hasn’t been higher than 44 percent in any public poll, which is remarkable for a four-term incumbent who not that long ago was among the most popular elected officials in the country.

U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon talks with Bates College students in Kennedy Park in Lewiston on Friday. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Both Collins and Gideon have been barnstorming Maine in the waning days of their campaigns. Gideon embarked Friday on a four-day road trip to visit all 16 Maine counties, punctuated Monday by her 40th and final “Supper with Sara” event. Collins plans to continue her “All of Maine” bus tour from Kittery to Madawaska to persuade voters that “she’s the only candidate who’s never stopped working for them,” said her spokeswoman, Annie Clark.

Last week’s Colby poll showed independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn received 4.7 percent and 1.7 percent support, respectively. If they combine for anything over 5 percent, the likelihood of either Gideon or Collins getting more than 50 percent of the vote on Election Day is slim. That means ranked-choice voting is likely to decide the race.

Dan Shea, chairman of the Colby College Department of Government and the lead researcher for their polls, said recent polling suggests ranked-choice voting could favor Gideon.

“It’s fair to say that given the closeness of the head-to-head match-up (between Gideon and Collins), it will go to the second ballot,” he said. “For a majority of Savage voters, their second choice is Gideon.”

The Senate race could be the second national race in Maine decided by the state’s ranked-choice voting law. Two years ago, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden defeated incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin, but only after ranked-choice voting eliminated two independents. That process took about two weeks.

“I would not hasten to put a time frame on ranked-choice at this junction,” Dunlap said.

OTHER RACES

In Maine’s two U.S. House races, the incumbent Democrats, Chellie Pingree and Golden, have commanding and likely insurmountable leads over their Republican opponents, Jay Allen and Dale Crafts, respectively. A poll last week by Colby College showed Pingree leading 58-31 percent among likely voters and Golden ahead 56-31 percent.

Democrats also appear to be a in good spot to maintain majorities in both the Maine House and Senate, which would ensure Gov. Janet Mills has a supportive legislature for the second half of her first term.

All 186 seats in the Legislature are up for re-election every two years. In 151 House races, 22 Democrats are running unopposed, compared to 10 Republicans. In 35 Senate races, two Democrats are running unopposed.

At the moment, Democrats control the Senate 21-14 and 89-62 in the House.

“We’re not hearing a lot about it, but control over state legislature matters a lot,” Brewer said. “The battle over the next state budget, in particular, is going to mean some catastrophic decisions, especially if Congress doesn’t pass more relief, or enough relief.”

If Republicans want a stronger voice, Brewer said, they need to make major gains.

“There is so little polling in those races, so it’s hard to know what to expect,” he said.

TURNOUT AND TIMING

Maine is always among the states with the highest voter turnout and this year is likely to continue that trend.

In 2016, 72.9 percent of Maine’s voting-eligible population voted, according to the United States Voting Project, run by political science professor Michael McDonald at the University of Florida. Only Minnesota had a higher percentage. The national rate was just over 60 percent.

Early voting totals across the country are far outpacing 2016, but the pandemic has played a role.

Dunlap said turnout on Election Day is likely to be lighter than most years but still brisk. Asked whether he was concerned about any problems at polling places, especially in light of the bitter polarization in this country, Dunlap said he’s already met with the Attorney General’s Office, the Maine Emergency Management Agency and others about preparations.

“We haven’t seen anything out there that gives us concern, but we’ll be on alert,” he said.

Shea said the recent visits by the Trump and Biden campaigns to Maine are not likely to change voters’ mind, “But they do help mobilize voters,” he said. “It’s going to be all about mobilization at this point.”

Because there are so many absentee ballots and those can’t be counted until Election Day, many states are cautioning that results may come later than normal.

“I think we may be in pretty good shape,” Dunlap said. “It depends on how well towns do processing ballots, but I’m pretty bullish on the idea that we’ll have results on election night.”

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