DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — More people have turned to absentee voting since the state in 1999 adopted “no excuse” balloting, which allows anyone to skirt the lines at polling places on Election Day.
There has been a steady increase in absentee balloting, and this is the highest year to date, according to Matt Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state.
“Right now we have already processed more absentee ballots than we did for the last presidential election,” Dunlap said Thursday. A total of 156,000 absentee ballots were cast in the last presidential election.
“We are anticipating about 25 percent of the total turnout to be absentee” this year, Dunlap said.
The increase in absentee voting has been seen in nearly every municipality across the state, including Dover-Foxcroft, which before 1999 typically processed about 250 absentee ballots for presidential elections. This year, according to Town Clerk Barbara Moore, 633 absentee ballots have been taken out, and of those 520 have been returned for processing. During the last presidential election in 2004, there were 450 absentee ballots cast.
“We live a busy life, and I feel people don’t have the time to stand in line for hours, but they do want to be able to exercise their right to vote,” Moore said Thursday.
And exercise their right they have. In Ellsworth, City Clerk Heidi Grindle said 893 of the 1,058 absentee ballots issued have been returned. In comparison, there were 840 absentee ballots cast in 2004.
Presque Isle City Clerk Nancy Nichols said 1,300 people were issued absentee ballots, and about 1,000 had been returned as of Thursday afternoon. “This has been our busiest day yet for absentee voting,” she said. Nichols said there were about 1,100 absentee ballots submitted in the last presidential election.
Stuart Sylvester, Rockland’s city clerk, said his office had issued 1,219 absentee ballots as of Thursday afternoon, and 1,007 have been returned. In 2004, Sylvester said his town processed 1,056 absentee ballots.
In Brewer, City Clerk Pam Ryan said about 1,200 absentee ballots have been issued, and about 1,100 had been returned as of Thursday afternoon. Ryan said 972 absentee ballots were cast in 2004.
Maine’s largest city already has set a new record for the number of absentee ballots.
City Clerk Linda Cohen reported Portland had issued 10,259 absentee ballots as of 9:20 a.m. Wednesday, breaking the old record of 10,003 absentee ballots in 2004.
Dunlap said voters are taking advantage of the opportunity to get it done and out of the way. “This has been a campaign season of intense interest, and people have pretty much made up their mind how they’re going to vote. They don’t have to wait until Election Day,” he said.
Aside from the “no excuse” change in balloting, which allows registered voters to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse for needing to do so, Dunlap said there have been no significant changes. “It’s just that people are making better use of the tool,” he said.
“The Legislature has been very thoughtful over the years in improving access to the polls,” Dunlap said. In 1973, the Legislature established Election Day registration so people could register to vote up to and on Election Day. In comparison, some states cut off voter registration two weeks before the election, so if you forgot to register, that’s too bad, he said.
While absentee balloting has helped streamline the process for some voters, it does add more work for town clerks, Moore said. “This new absentee voting has certainly put a lot more work on town clerks, but it’s all in the name of democracy,” she said.
According to Moore, town clerks have to make sure the absentee ballots are legal and have met all the state requirements. “I’m going to estimate that it probably takes 10 to 15 minutes per voter to process the paperwork of each absentee ballot,” she said.
Once the absentee ballot is deemed OK, clerks initial the envelope and stamp it with the date and time. That and other information is entered into a computerized Central Voter Registration system, which flows into a database in Augusta, giving Dunlap an accurate count of how many absentee votes have been received.
This year, Moore, Sylvester and other clerks across the state plan to process the absentee ballots received as of 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 3, on that date.
In Dover-Foxcroft, Moore said the ballots will be opened in a formal setting exactly the same as on Election Day. At least one person representing the Republican and Democratic parties and a warden will oversee the ballot openings. By law, each political party has an opportunity to inspect the absentee envelopes an hour before they are opened. The public also is welcome to attend.
During this process, the ballots remain folded and are stacked up until all the envelopes are opened so no one knows how anyone voted, Moore said. Then the ballots are processed. No tallies or results will be run that day, she said. Those tallies will be available after the close of the election when all the votes have been counted.
Absentee ballots will still be accepted before 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Even with an increase in absentee voting, clerks say they are anticipating a larger than normal turnout next Tuesday. Moore said she has added additional ballot clerks and a deputy warden to the roster to help streamline the election. She said the polls in Dover-Foxcroft would open at 8 a.m., an hour earlier than usual.
Dunlap also expects a large turnout statewide on Election Day.
“I think … the phenomenon you’re witnessing is that when you provide the public the tools, they do a good job with those tools,” Dunlap said. “It’s the voters who deserve the credit for turning out to vote. All we’ve done as a state is remove barriers where we see them.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.