Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said he was mostly satisfied with how this year’s election was run despite the fact that results from some communities didn’t arrive until Wednesday morning and the count continued for most of the day.

The election featured record-setting use of absentee ballots to reduce the risk of voters and election officials contracting COVID-19 through in-person voting, and it appeared that overall turnout might break records as well.

The Associated Press called Democrat Joe Biden the winner early Wednesday morning, and declared President Trump the winner in the 2nd Congressional District early that afternoon, around the same time it called the U.S. Senate race for incumbent Republican Susan Collins, although Democrat Sara Gideon had already conceded.

In Maine, elections are primarily local affairs, presided over by town clerks, and a few didn’t report results until Wednesday morning.

In Kittery, Town Clerk Karen Estee said she and other local election officials counted far enough Tuesday night to have unofficial results, but waited until Wednesday morning to double-check the tallies and get results to state officials and local media. For Estee, Election Day began at 4 a.m., so she and a small staff punched out around midnight and returned at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday to finish up.

On Wednesday, Dunlap and Estee answered questions about Tuesday’s vote.

Q. Does the state push local election officials to complete their work on election night?

A. No, said Dunlap. They hope they will be able to wrap up a few hours after the polls close, but state officials also recognize that tired counters can mean errors.

“When something changes in a recount, it’s often when people got tired and made a mistake,” he said, like transposing a couple of numbers on a tally sheet. State officials have considered instituting a policy suggesting that poll workers close up for the night if they haven’t finished counting by a certain time

The goal, Dunlap said, is to make sure what people remember about an election is the result, not a vote-counting mishap.

“What we’re shooting for is absolute boredom” concerning the election process, he said.

Q. Was this election different from those in the past?

A. A huge shift to absentee voting and a jump in turnout made 2020 unique. Statewide, Dunlap predicted turnout far in excess of 70 percent, perhaps record-setting for Maine.

In Kittery, turnout was huge with about 6,427 ballots cast, Estee said. The town has about 6,520 registered voters – including 150 who registered on Election Day – for a total turnout of more than 98 percent. Roughly 4,800 ballots were turned in ahead of time, Estee said.

Maine allows voters to cast an absentee ballot for any reason. Voters can request that a ballot be mailed to them and they can either mail the completed ballot back to their town clerk or drop it off at town hall or in a ballot drop box. Estee said the shift to absentee voting, largely because voters wanted to avoid crowds during the pandemic, actually made Election Day easier for her because there were fewer large groups looking to vote in-person. In fact, between 6 and 8 p.m., when polls closed, only about four voters showed up, she said.

Q. All that early voting meant that town officials could get a jump on vote counting, right?

A. Not necessarily. Dunlap said town officials were told that they could start to process ballots seven days before the election, but they weren’t supposed to hit the tally button on the counting machines until after the polls closed Tuesday night. Estee said she thought she wasn’t authorized to process the absentee ballots until after 8 p.m., so the first few hours were spent feeding the ballots into tabulating machines.

Dunlap said his office needs to make sure town clerks not only are told about the rules but that they understand them. He said most town clerks in Maine wear multiple hats – they register voters and run elections, but they often perform other town jobs, such as animal control officer or tax collector. Elections constitute only a few of their busy days each year, he said, so they may not pay close attention to the latest state edict on election procedures.

Estee said the state requirements can be overwhelming and can slow down vote tallying.

“The inordinate amount of paperwork, it is too much from the state,” she said, one  reason she opted to close up late Tuesday and return early Wednesday to finish counting and filling out the forms.

Also, some ballots must be processed by hand, she said. If the machine won’t read a ballot for some reason election clerks must inspect it, determine the votes and add them manually.

Most of the time, that’s done with people looking over the clerks’ shoulder, she said. On Tuesday, Kittery had observers from the League of Women Voters and from the local Democratic and Republican parties. The observers, she said, were “cordial” and didn’t interfere with the processing, but the extra scrutiny can slow things down a bit.

Q. Will the heavy absentee voting this year lead to changes in how elections are conducted?

A. Maybe. Dunlap said he thinks some will be driven by voters, such as adding drop boxes for submitting ballots early. Once voters try voting early, they often feel more comfortable with the process and will continue to do so.

Many rules governing elections are legal requirements rather than policies his office has adopted, so changes may need to be considered by the Legislature, he said. Dunlap will be stepping down at the end of the year and said he hasn’t yet decided whether to leave lawmakers a list of changes they should take up.

Estee said she’d like to see the state reduce some of the paperwork so town officials can concentrate on making voting easier and to allow vote-counting process to be wrapped up earlier on Election Night.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: