Jody Shellene feeds absentee ballots into a ballot reader in Sanford in November. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — A bill that would give Maine municipal clerks more time to process absentee ballots ran into opposition Monday from some Republican lawmakers who raised concerns about whether it would increase the risk of voter fraud.

The processing time for absentee ballots was extended from four days to seven for the last election under an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills in response to high demand from residents who wanted to avoid voting in person to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19.

A bill to make the seven-day processing period permanent is among dozens of measures before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that would affect elections and voting. The bill is supported by Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and several nonprofits that support changing ballot-processing procedures.

Bellows said early processing last year allowed Maine to compile unofficial results for most races by the end of election night, despite record voter turnout.

But during a committee hearing Monday, Reps. Mary Anne Kinney and Josanne Dolloff questioned whether increasing the time for processing ballots would increase the risk of fraud.

“Is it possible that the town clerk may not like one of the candidates on that ballot and as she opens them and uncreases them somehow they just don’t fit into that machine, because she finds one candidate is getting too many votes, is that a possibility?” asked Dolloff, of Rumford.

Kinney, of Knox, said the extra processing time could allow more opportunity for ballots to be manipulated.

“I’m concerned about how we are going to protect those who vote early, who vote by absentee early, and if we are counting ballots a week out, how do we guarantee that those ballots are protected and those numbers don’t start coming out of the offices?” Kinney asked. “We’ve had issues across the state in the past with clerks, for various reasons, all kinds of different things and clerks are not always perfect, which none of us are.”

She added that many people are concerned about election fraud. “I’m not saying, I’ve seen that here in Maine,” Kinney said. “But counting our ballots that early just worries me in terms of where we are going to have the proper protection of those ballots.”

Polling suggests ballot-fraud concerns are widely held among Republican voters. A December survey of 24,000 voters by researchers at Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern and Rutgers found that more than 40 percent of surveyed Republicans said they believe former President Donald Trump won the November election, even though no evidence of fraud has been presented.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and bill sponsor Rep. Stephen Moriarty, D-Cumberland, said the concerns expressed by Kinney and Dolloff are unfounded.

Moriarty said existing Maine law already prohibits counting ballots before polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day. Clerks can get the state’s permission to remove ballots from their return envelopes, stack them, and run them through tabulating machines in advance, but the actual tabulation cannot be done until Election Day.

“The law says you cannot get an early tally, you have no way of knowing how the votes are coming in, who’s got the lead and who is coming up short,” Moriarty said.

Kate Dufour, an attorney for the Maine Municipal Association, noted that even in hand-count towns, ballots were not actually counted until Election Day and absentee ballots were processed publicly between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. on a day that was announced in advance.

“Which means we are not doing this in the cover of the night or the early morning hours, we are doing it basically during business hours,” Dufour said. “There is nothing … that prevents you from being in the room when that process takes place. If somebody is stuffing ballots in a trash can, rather than a ballot box, then you would be there to witness that.”

In 2020, 231 of 500 municipal governments in Maine asked to process ballots early, and only 22 were towns that did not use tabulation machines, according to data provided by Bellows’ office.

Maine voters used absentee ballots in record-shattering numbers in 2020 as they sought to avoid Election Day crowds during the pandemic. More than 500,000 Maine voters – about half of all registered voters in the state – used an absentee ballot last November, compared to just 40,000 absentee ballot requests during the 2016 presidential election.

The bill will next be the subject of work session in which lawmakers could amend it and will vote to recommend passage or defeat to the full Legislature.


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