Buoyed by an already record number of absentee ballots and anecdotal accounts from polling places across the state, the 2008 election in Maine appeared to be headed toward record turnout.
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap predicted Tuesday that more than 80 percent of registered voters would cast ballots, significantly higher than the record of 74 percent set in 2004.
“We’ve anticipated heavy turnout since the caucuses in February, so we were prepared,” Dunlap said at the Bangor Civic Center, one of four polling spots in the Queen City. “The fact that there have been so few problems all day is a testament to the clerks and election officials throughout the state.”
Despite the overall smooth day, a couple of municipalities experienced difficulties. The town of Orono was in danger of running out of state ballots, so Dunlap dropped off some more on his way through Bangor. Another polling place — Bangor High School — was closed for about half an hour when a fire alarm went off. As a result, the Maine Democratic Party requested the secretary of state extend the polling hours there.
At 8 p.m., Dunlap and the city staff had received permission from Maine Superior Court Justice Thomas Humphrey to keep the polling place open until 9 p.m. to accommodate any voters who might have been affected by the shutdown. Democratic spokeswoman Rebecca Pollard said voters affected by the fire alarm would be required to sign an affidavit swearing they were in line at the time of the delay.
Dunlap said at the close of the polls that none of the voters who had left during the disruption returned between 8 and 9 p.m.
Police had an adult male suspect Tuesday night. They said the man, who had not yet been charged, was known to police and had entered the school through an unsecured door.
Dunlap said, “It was a disruptive event and caused a lot of work for poll workers, the city clerk and attorneys,” as well as himself.
In Scarborough, a machine error voided all absentee ballots, and the recount could take until today.
Town Clerk Tody Justice says absentee ballots from 6,586 voters had been tabulated with only about a dozen or so to go when the machine failed.
Justice says workers will rerun the ballots all night, but she doesn’t expect to be able to report results before late this morning.
Among other things, residents are voting on whether to allow the Scarborough Downs harness racing track to have slot machines.
The presidential race between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain appeared to be the driving force behind the generally high turnout across the state, but a high-profile U.S. Senate race, two U.S. House races and two citizen initiatives also helped draw Mainers to the polls. Volunteers from both major parties in Maine also mounted unprecedented voter mobilization efforts.
By Monday morning, 240,705 absentee ballots had been issued and 227,212 had been returned. Those totals far outpaced the amount of absentee votes in the 2004 election and helped ensure that voting ran smoothly Tuesday.
In Bangor, more than 9,000 of approximately 22,000 registered voters submitted absentee ballots, and in nearby Veazie 265 of 1,360 voters submitted ballots before Election Day, according to town officials.
In Brunswick, six patients in the surgical unit and maternity ward at Midcoast Hospital got their chance to vote Tuesday from their hospital beds.
Greg Howard of the Brunswick Democratic Town Committee says he and another person delivered the absentee ballots to the patients, then delivered them to election officials to be tallied.
The women staffing a voting table at the Old Town Elks Club on Tuesday evening seemed amazed but glad at the high turnout. They were officials for Ward 1, Old Town’s largest voting ward, which usually has 2,000 registered voters.
“It’s been busy,” said Charlene Vandez, an election clerk. “We have no time to knit and read magazines today.”
Marie Richards, the vote warden, joked that in past years she has been able to knit a whole sweater.
“Look at the stack of new voters who registered today!” she said with a smile. By 5 p.m., almost 900 people already had voted in her ward, which also counted 800 absentee ballots — and Richards was expecting a rush of after-work voters.
In Orono’s Birch Street Senior Center, there was a steady stream of voters in the afternoon.
“As you can see, the joint is jumping,” said Lisa Feldman, an assistant registrar, who gestured at the line of voters, many of whom were college students registering to vote. She said the highlight for her was the high level of youth participation.
“I feel like I’m helping to make history. And it’s superfun,” Feldman said.
Wanda Thomas, clerk for the town of Orono, which had 2,200 absentee ballots out of 9,300 registered voters, has been facilitating elections since 1972 and said she has never seen anything like this.
“Most people seem to be energized by the presidential race,” she said. “I’m ready for it to be over.”
The Associated Press and BDN writers Eric Russell, Jen Lynds, Dawn Gagnon and Meagan Marston contributed to this report.