BANGOR, Maine — Maine voters may be getting mixed signals about the term “early voting,” which is generating interest recently in some Maine municipalities, including Bangor.
Early voting technically is not allowed under state law in candidate elections, according to a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office. Instead, what has been billed as “early voting” during this election cycle may more accurately be described as “in-person absentee voting.”
The difference may well be semantic for most voters, but during a high-profile election season, confusion is the last thing municipal clerks and state officials want.
“Early voting means opening up polling places prior to Election Day, staffing them the same way with volunteers and officials and counting them immediately, but what we’re seeing this year is [municipalities] offering in-person absentee voting,” said Don Cookson at the Secretary of State’s office.
Before 1999, Maine voters were required to submit an acceptable reason for voting absentee. Since the law changed to allow any registered voter to vote absentee for any reason, the number of absentee ballots has risen sharply. Cookson said approximately 76,000 Mainers voted absentee in the 2000 presidential election. That number jumped to 166,000 in 2004, and Cookson predicted that it will be even higher this time around.
“One of the notions behind offering the absentee option to anyone was to give people an alternative,” he said. “What we don’t want to see is that people who have every intention of voting are unable to do so.”
Bangor City Clerk Patti Dubois, who included the phrase “early voting” on an informational card mailed to registered city voters, said that it has caused a bit of confusion. She confirmed on Wednesday that the city will host “in-person absentee voting” hours from Monday, Oct. 27, through Saturday, Nov. 1, at the Bangor Civic Center.
“Because we consistently have such a high voter turnout, we wanted to offer that option,” Dubois said, although she stressed that voters who choose to vote early will not see their ballots counted until Election Day.
Voters can still send absentee ballots the old-fashioned way — that is, by mail — as long as they allow enough time for it to be processed. However, Dubois said Bangor will not be accepting in-person absentee ballots on Monday, Nov. 3, or on Election Day.
Last year, Bangor was one of a handful of municipalities that participated in an early voting pilot program, which may be contributing to the confusion. Cookson said last year the term “early voting” was accurate and allowable because it was not a candidate election. Early voters were only asked to decide referendum and bond questions.
“The idea of early voting is to improve accessibility, but also to help assist municipal officials who facilitate elections,” he said. “But to do that in [candidate elections] would require a change in state law.”
At close glance, some might consider “in-person absentee voting” a way around the law.
“I don’t know that it’s an effort to circumvent the laws, and it’s certainly not intentional,” Cookson said. “The increase in absentee voting is generally considered a very positive thing.”