Absentee voting in the Nov. 2 election is down sharply from this time in 2020, a sign of lower voter interest and a possible return to more normal voting habits, according to election officials and political scientists.

Just over 53,000 of the state’s more than 1.3 million registered voters have so far returned their absentee ballots, according to the latest data from the Maine Secretary of State’s Office released Tuesday. In all, more than 100,000 voters have requested absentee ballots.

As they did in 2020, Democratic voters continue to outpace their Republican counterparts in absentee ballot requests and account for 51,544 of the requests to clerks compared to 23,943 ballot requests made by Republican voters and 22,544 requests made by voters who are not enrolled in either party. Green Independents have requested 2,485 ballots and Libertarians have requested 24 ballots.

The overall numbers pale in comparison to 2020, when more than 477,000 voters had returned their ballots and more than 500,000 ballots had been issued by clerks by Oct. 30.

Turnout last year was driven by a tight U.S. presidential race, as well as high-profile races for the U.S. Senate and Maine Legislature. And, with vaccines not yet available, many voters were reluctant to vote in person.

Several key things may be responsible for reduced interest in absentee voting this cycle.

University of Maine political science department Chair and Professor Mark Brewer calls this Nov. 2 election “an off-off cycle” because there are no major races at the top of the ticket and no state legislative contests, despite some hyper-local competitions for mayor and city council playing out at the municipal level.

“There is very little going on at the state and federal level,” Brewer said. At the same time, Brewer expected to see more early voting based on interest in a statewide ballot question asking if voters want to reject a proposed power line through the Kennebec River Valley.

“There’s been a high level of spending on that race,” Brewer said of Question 1, “and it’s looking to be the second-most expensive in state history, so I’m a little surprised absentee turnout isn’t higher than it is.” The most expensive was the 2020 U.S. Senate race.

Another factor could be that voters are returning to more normal habits of voting in person. Mainers, like people across the nation, are more used to living under COVID-19 restrictions and most adults have been vaccinated against the virus, two factors not in play in the fall of 2020, Brewer said.

“Even with COVID cases as high now, if not higher than they were in November of 2020, we are far more back to normal with vaccinations and people now used to living with it,” he said. “I think more people will be far more inclined to vote in person this cycle as well.”

The possibility of more in-person voting means it’s difficult to predict election day turnout based on the big drop in absentee ballots.

Another possible factor is the lack of early voting campaigns by the state’s political parties. Voters are not being encouraged to participate by absentee ballot like they were in 2020, according to Brewer and University of Maine political science professor Jim Melcher.

“Much of what has driven absentee voting in Maine in recent years has been party organizations pushing early voting hard, because it helps free up resources for (get out the vote) efforts,” Melcher said. “There has been some effort to spur early voting by people on the Question 1 campaigns, but they don’t have the kind of mailing lists that parties do and aren’t going to reach as many people.”

Voter turnout is naturally down during off cycles and even with the sharp drop in absentee participation from 2020, voters are still on track to break pre-COVID records for absentee ballots, said Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows.

If all of the 100,000 voters who requested an absentee ballot return one, they will far eclipse the pre-COVID record for absentee voting set in 2011, when just over 63,000 voters returned absentee ballots, Bellows said.

“So, really, we are doing pretty good for absentee ballots at this point,” Bellows said.

Bellows said town clerks may be under less pressure this year to process a surge of absentee ballots and requests for ballots, but COVID-19 is still having an impact in at least two towns.  Ellsworth and Richmond have seen COVID-19 cases in town hall, forcing remote operations for clerks as they prepare for election day. Bellows said all polling places in Maine are expected to be open on Election Day next week.

Polling places open by 8 a.m. Tuesday, and earlier in some communities. All polls close at 8 p.m.

Clerks in Lewiston and Portland said voting innovations set up in 2020 aimed at reducing crowding at the polls were being used by voters in their cities.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathleen Montejo said just under 50 voters a day were using in-person absentee voting at City Hall, or early absentee voting, which allows voters to pick up and cast their absentee ballot before Election Day. Montejo said that option started on Oct. 14 will end on Thursday, although voters can still use the city’s ballot drop box.

“Voters love the drop box,” Montejo said. “We have received hundreds of ballots this way.”

Portland Clerk Katherine Jones also said absentee turnout was significantly reduced compared to 2020, but there is still time to vote absentee.

Portland voters can cast in-person absentee ballots at City Hall until 7 p.m. Thursday. The ballots also can be turned in by 8 p.m. on election day at the clerk’s office in the Merrill Auditorium lobby or using the city’s 24-hour drop box at City Hall.

Montejo said Question 1 – the power line corridor referendum – is driving a lot of voter interest in Lewiston, but so is an open mayoral election and elections for contested city council seats with no incumbents running. “The school committee races are generating interest, too, given all of the attention that school committee decisions have taken lately with masking, etc.,” she said.

As of Wednesday, Montejo said 2,285 Lewiston voters had cast absentee ballots and she expected absentee ballot participation would make up about 25 percent of all voter turnout for the city, which compares to about 70 percent in 2020.

Bellows, a Democrat, also reminded voters that they should feel confident in Maine’s elections regardless of how they vote. The state’s dependence on paper ballots and a system that requires poll workers from both major parties to be present in all voting places ensures Maine elections are free, open and fair, she said.

“Mainers should have the highest confidence in their elections,” Bellows said. “Our elections are open and transparent.”


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