By David Sharp
Maine election officials have declared a record voter turnout but it’ll be days before a final tally is released, the secretary of state’s office said Wednesday.
Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap projected 80 percent participation among registered voters. If so, that would far outstrip the previous record of 74 percent from four years ago.
All signs including more than 30,000 new voters and a record of more than 233,000 absentee ballots point toward a new record for voter participation in Maine.
“For all intents and purposes we can consider it a record level turnout,” said Don Cookson, spokesman from the secretary of state’s office in Augusta.
Nationally, it looks like a record turnout as well.
The total voting estimated at more than 130 million easily outdistanced 2004’s 122.3 million, which had been the highest grand total of voters before. The national turnout rate is expected to be the highest since 1908.
In Maine, officials projected that about 550,000 voters would go to the polls on Election Day in addition to all of those absentee ballots. Anecdotal evidence points toward a heavy turnout with lines in many locations when the polls opened.
There were so many absentee ballots that more than 70 municipalities petitioned to begin processing them a day early to lighten their Election Day load.
By law, town clerks must provide hard copies of their returns to the secretary of state, who must provide certified results to the governor 20 days after the election.
“We won’t be putting a cherry on the top of voter turnout until we have an opportunity to review all of the returns from municipalities,” Cookson said.
The record number of absentee ballots cast in this election will also provide an exclamation mark to an effort to amend the Maine Constitution to allow early voting for the convenience of voters — and to help harried clerks.
Early voting would take away the paperwork associated with explosive growth of absentee ballots while making it easier for voters, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said.
Dunlap said he’ll ask the Legislature in January to start the process of amending the constitution based on the success of an early-voting pilot program a year ago in Portland, Bangor and Readfield.
“Early voting would be a terrific tool,” Dunlap said Wednesday. As for the pilot program, he said, “Voters loved it. Election officials loved it. There was no muss, no fuss.”
To amend the Maine Constitution, both chambers of the Legislature would have to approve by two-thirds majorities. Then the matter would go to a statewide vote.
In addition to early voting, the secretary of state also plans to replace all voting machines in Maine with a goal of ensuring uniformity and launch a vote-by-mail pilot project.
The number of vote tabulation machines purchased depends on the overall cost after the state issues a request for proposals, Dunlap said. As it stands, about 60 percent of Maine municipalities count their votes by hand, and many are so small they’ll continue doing so, he said.
As for absentee ballots, something needs to change because they’re putting a strain on clerks who have to manage paperwork. After absentee ballots are returned, each one of them is placed in an envelope, alphabetized and stored until Election Day.
Bangor City Clerk Patti Dubois said people are generally confused about early voting and many think of absentee voting as a form of early voting.
“Voters don’t know the distinction between early voting and absentee balloting. It’s irrelevant to them, but it’s very relevant to clerks,” said Dubois, whose office processed 8,200 absentee ballots, an increase from 3,300 in the last presidential election.
In Portland, early voting would’ve meant less work and fewer overtime dollars for workers who scrambled to process 12,859 absentee ballots, said City Clerk Linda Cohen.
All told, there were about 74,000 absentee ballots cast in 2000, the first year Maine residents were given the option of “no-excuse” absentee ballots. The number grew to 166,000 absentee ballot requests in 2004, and then soared even higher to 242,000 this year.