Campaigns heed absentee voter increase

Posted Sept. 23, 2010, at 8:11 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — As early as next week, some Maine voters could begin receiving absentee ballots in the mail — meaning they have the chance to lock up their vote a full month before Election Day and stay home on Nov. 2.

Diane Lovejoy, assistant city clerk in Bangor, said Thursday that her office already has a stack of absentee requests just waiting to be stuffed with ballots.

“As soon as we get them from the state, they’ll go out,” she said.

Today’s poll

Have you voted or will you
vote by absentee ballot?

Yes

No

Recent incremental changes in the electoral process have made absentee voting more convenient and more popular. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who was in Bangor this week to update municipal clerks and registrars on election changes, said absentee voting could reach 30 percent this year.

“I think we’ll continue to see the rate grow. There is a ceiling, but I’m not sure we’ve reached it yet,” he said.

Not surprisingly, campaigns are paying more attention than ever to absentee voters. Both major parties in Maine have begun the process of soliciting absentee votes through mailers and e-mail blasts.

“It looks like both the Democrats and Republicans are trying to promote absentee balloting,” said University of Maine political scientist Amy Fried. “If they can bank on clear supporters, they can focus efforts on undecideds. I think that’s probably more difficult to do as an independent.”

Monica Castellanos, a spokeswomman for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, said recent polls suggest a lot of Mainers are still undecided, but she said Cutler’s campaign is courting early voters just like other candidates.

“We are doing a lot of the same things everyone is doing. We have a statewide voter file and access to most of the same information as the major parties,” she said.

Since 1999, when state laws changed to allow any registered voter to vote absentee for any reason, the number of absentee ballots has risen sharply, from about 76,000 in 2000 to 166,000 in 2006. The number jumped to more than 230,000 during the November 2008 election, or about 25 percent of all voters.

Studies have shown that the largest percentage of early voters are over age 60 with the majority of the youngest voters casting a ballot on Election Day.

Fried said although absentee voting is convenient, it does change the political process considerably.

“There are some analysts that don’t like absentee voting because voters are making decisions before the campaign ends. A lot of things can happen and often do happen in the last month,” she said.

David Loughran with the campaign of Democrat Libby Mitchell said he and his staff met Thursday to discuss absentee voting but did not go into specifics.

“We have an aggressive effort to get supporters to vote both on Election Day and through the absentee process,” he said. “We’re expanding our use of technology to reach supporters. That’s really what it’s about, reaching voters.”

Brent Littlefield, a consultant for GOP gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage, was similarly vague about the Republican’s efforts.

“We obviously are extremely excited about people voting and people taking advantage of voting absentee,” he said. “It’s very clear that our message is resonating and his record is not going to change in the next month.”

Candidates are not the only ones pushing absentee voting. Officials with Yes on 1, supporters of a resort-style casino in Oxford County, have sent out absentee requests this week.

Maine communities can begin offering absentee ballots within 45 days of the election. Many cities and towns offer early voting, which is really just in-person absentee voting, the week prior to Election Day.

But Fried said Maine is still a state rich with traditions. Among them is going to the local polling place, getting a piece of paper and closing the curtain to cast a vote in private. There will always be a large number of voters who are unwilling to relinquish that tradition, even if it means standing in line.

“Maine has an advantage for high turnout anyway with same-day registration, but certainly the state has made the process a lot easier,” she said. “But I know I tend to like to vote in person.”

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