In the most recent election, more than half those who voted in Bangor did so by absentee ballot. Clearly, half the city’s voters weren’t out of town on Nov. 4. Rather, they took advantage of the city’s early voting option.
The increasing popularity of early voting, which is really in-person absentee voting, shows that the notion of a single voting day is outdated. To keep pace, lawmakers need to update the state’s voting rules; instead they are likely to continue studying early voting. To make such a study worthwhile, objections to an expansion of early voting — namely that ballot fraud will be easier — must be assessed and addressed.
Since 1999, when state laws changed to allow any registered voter to vote absentee for any reason, the number of absentee ballots has risen considerably, from about 76,000 in 2000 to 166,000 four years ago. The number jumped to more than 230,000 during last November’s election.
In Bangor, 8,154 people voted absentee compared to the 8,033 who showed up on Election Day. Bangor set up an early voting polling place at the Civic Center a week before the official Election Day. The popularity of early voting increased with age. The largest percentage of early voters were among those over age 60, with the majority of the youngest voters casting a ballot on Nov. 4.
Because of the growing participation in early voting, municipal clerks worry that processing so many absentee ballots is becoming too time consuming and may lead to mistakes.
To ease the process, they asked that early voting use real ballots, not absentee ballots. The Maine Constitution now limits in-person voting for senators, representatives and the governor to the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This means that absentee ballots must be used for votes cast in these races before that Tuesday.
LD 350 would alleviate this by giving the Legislature the power to expand the in-person voting period to 10 days before an election. This does not require towns to offer early voting, but removes a hurdle to those that want to. Although the measure passed initial votes in the House and Senate, it fell short of the two-thirds vote needed for a constitutional amendment.
At the same time, lawmakers have endorsed LD 129, which expands an early voting pilot project. A previous pilot project in 2007 in Bangor, Portland and Readfield was well received. This expanded pilot project is an opportunity to quantify ballot fraud and seeks ways to minimize it to answer concerns that early voting is not secure.
People clearly like voting at their convenience. As long as elections remain free of fraud, communities should be able to offer voters this opportunity.