A woman approaches the polls at the Woodfords Club in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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With just over a month to go until the July 14 primary election, Maine voters have requested absentee ballots at a higher rate than they did for past primaries, but they still represent only a fraction of the total number of voters expected to participate in the state’s first election during the coronavirus pandemic.

The upcoming election features a statewide primary for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, as well as a primary for the Republican congressional nomination in the 2nd District. There are also nearly three dozen state and local primaries as well as two bond questions that are open to all voters regardless of party affiliation.

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City and town officials, as well as a number of nonprofit organizations, have been encouraging voters to request absentee ballots in order to protect public health by minimizing crowds on Election Day, particularly as shortages of poll workers have led some cities to consolidate their polling locations.

Through Tuesday, just over 58,000 Maine voters had requested absentee ballots for the primary, according to data from the department of the Secretary of State. That exceeds absentee ballot requests in previous primaries, but it still represents less than a quarter of the total number of voters that the state anticipates participating in the July election.

Absentee ballots typically make up a relatively small portion of the electorate. In 2018, about 28,000 voters had requested absentee ballots one month ahead of the June primary, according to state data; only 36,000 eventually requested them, although more than 280,000 ballots were ultimately cast in that election.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who oversees elections, said at a Bangor Daily News event earlier this week that his department was expecting a turnout of about 25 percent for the upcoming July election, which would translate to upwards of 250,000 voters.

Turnout for previous summertime primary elections has ranged from roughly 10 percent in 2016 and closer to 30 percent in 2018, when both parties held statewide gubernatorial primaries and there was a referendum on ranked-choice voting. For general elections, Maine’s turnout has exceeded 70 percent in presidential years.

Dunlap said he expects the number of absentee ballot requests to “accelerate vastly” in the coming weeks as the election draws nearer. The primary election was originally scheduled for June 9 but was pushed back to July 14 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The first batch of absentee ballots will be sent out Friday to voters who have already requested one.

Maine has no-reason-needed absentee voting, meaning that any registered voter can ask for a ballot by filling out a form on the state election website or contacting their town office. Under an executive order from Gov. Janet Mills, voters can request an absentee ballot through Election Day. Usually, there is a cut off the third business day prior to the election.

However, individuals expecting to receive and return their absentee ballots by mail should not wait until the last minute — ballots must be returned prior to when polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day.