Is increase in absentee voting altering the political process?

AUGUSTA,  Maine — As polls opened Tuesday morning, the big question hanging over Maine’s race for governor was whether independent Eliot Cutler’s late-October surge began early enough to catapult him past Republican and perennial front-runner Paul LePage.
By Wednesday morning, voters had answered the question of who would occupy the Blaine House. As for his surge, Cutler said the problem wasn’t that it began too late. Instead, he said, voting began too early thanks to the growing popularity in Maine of absentee ballots.
“I think that when you start the election at a very early date, first of all, it deprives people … of the time they need to make up their minds or change their minds,” Cutler said after his concession speech inside his Portland headquarters.
In a textbook example of the fluidity of modern elections, Cutler caught up to and nearly stole the Blaine House from Republican Gov.-elect Paul LePage thanks to a wave of last-minute defections from Democrat Libby Mitchell’s campaign.
According to unofficial election results, Cutler fell 10,000 votes short of LePage out of more than 565,000 votes cast.
More than 130,000 of those were cast by absentee ballot, which are available to any registered voter who wishes to vote early for any reason.
At least 50,000 of those absentee ballots came from registered Democrats — some of whom Cutler believes voted for Mitchell but might have switched to him on Election Day after assessing who had a better chance of defeating LePage, the most conservative candidate.
Although it’s impossible to say whether Mainers’ increasing appetite for early voting may have cost Cutler the election, several political observers agreed that the independent received fewer votes as a result.
“I believe it ended up hurting him,” said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington. “I definitely think that is true.”
“It probably did have an impact,” added Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine’s Orono campus. “It does seem that a lot of Democrats moved to Cutler at the end as a means of strategic voting.”
There is no question that Cutler was riding a surge of support heading into Tuesday’s election. The Cape Elizabeth lawyer had spent months mired well behind LePage and Mitchell in third place until mid-October.
By the end of October, Cutler had picked up the endorsements of most of Maine’s major newspapers as well as former Gov. Angus King, one of two independents to occupy the Blaine House.
Proof of the apparent fence hopping came Tuesday when Mitchell — a former House speaker and Senate president who handily won her party’s nomination — received just 19 percent of the vote in a state where one-third of registered voters are Democrats.
“If there is a surge, people who vote early can’t participate in that surge,” said Sandy Maisel, a veteran political watcher at Colby College.
Sensing a possible problem, the Cutler campaign sent out an e-mail Monday morning titled “URGENT! You can take back your absentee ballot.” The e-mail blast, which the campaign said it sent after consulting with the Secretary of State’s office, included a link to a form for requesting a do-over from local municipal clerks.
But the message appears to have caused more confusion, including at the Secretary of State’s office.
“What we have been saying is you can’t just go and change your mind; you have to have a reason,” Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said in an interview on Monday. Ultimately, voters who wanted a new ballot were directed to say their original absentee ballot “did not reflect voter intent.”
Further complicating matters, more than 60 towns across the state were already tabulating absentee voter ballots on Monday and would, therefore, have been unable to accept any changes.
It appears that, despite the e-mail blast, few Mainers even sought to change their votes, however. Bangor City Clerk Patti Dubois said Thursday she heard of only one such request from someone who wanted to switch to Cutler. But because Bangor was already processing absentee ballots, the voter could not request a new ballot.
Likewise, Augusta City Clerk Barbara Wardwell said she was aware of only one inquiry to her office. Clerks in Auburn, Lewiston, Waterville and South Portland also reported getting little to no requests on Monday, according to media reports.
Wardwell said she was glad it never became an issue.
“If that happens, it is going to be a nightmare,” she said. “I don’t know how that will work in an office like ours or in even smaller towns.”
Early voting is often viewed as a way to increase turnout by reducing barriers and generally making voting more convenient for people.
Lance Dutson, spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, said Cutler’s remarks sounded like sour grapes. Although he acknowledged that the parties use early voting to their advantage, he said Cutler had the money to go after early voters. He also pointed out that tens of thousands of unenrolled voters cast absentee ballots.
“I think the Democrats would agree with us that one of the best ways of re-engaging people in our democracy is absentee ballots,” Dutson said. “As the turnout increases, win or lose for our side, it is a good thing for Maine.”
Maine voters seem to like it as well.
Before 1999, Maine voters were required to submit an acceptable reason for voting absentee. Since the law changed to allow any registered voter to vote absentee for any reason, the number of absentee ballots has risen sharply. Approximately 76,000 Mainers voted absentee in the 2000 presidential election. That number jumped to 166,000 in 2004 and then to 239,000 during the 2008 presidential election.
While the percentage of Mainers who cast absentee ballots declined in this midterm election, there’s no denying its popularity, with nearly one in four registered voters casting their ballots before Election Day.
Melcher said, with the increase in absentee voting, he expects that similar situations to Cutler’s will emerge given that independents represent the largest block of voters and most gubernatorial elections in Maine feature more than two candidates.
“I think that is the kind of thing more likely to pop up in Maine than in other states,” Melcher said.
As part of his criticism of the rise of early voting, Cutler said the Republican and Democratic parties made early voting as easy as possible as a way to reinforce “the institutional hold that political parties have on our political process.” That also helps them get out in front of and therefore blunt a late surge, he said.
“If there’s anything that’s clear from this year’s experience in the state of Maine, that kind of stranglehold that the political parties have on the political process is something that does not benefit the state,” Cutler said.