In this June 30, 2020, file photo, a box of absentee ballots wait to be counted at the Albany County Board of Elections in Albany, N.Y. Mail-in ballots have exploded in popularity since the pandemic spread in mid-March, at the peak of primary season. Credit: Hans Pennink / AP

Maine voters can now request an absentee ballot online for the November election, as concerns about voting by mail have grown here and across the country due to ongoing delays with the U.S. Postal Service.

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The July election set a record for absentee ballot use in a primary with more than 185,000 voters returning them, accounting for nearly 60 percent of overall turnout. Local officials pitched absentee voting as a safe alternative to in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, concerns about the postal service’s ability to deliver absentee ballots on time has raised concerns about the use of the process for the general election. The agency warned Maine at the end of July that voters should plan on mailing their absentee ballots 15 days early, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap confirmed last week. The state is exploring alternatives for votes to return ballots that would not rely on the postal system.

Earlier in the week, a local postal union alleged that more than 80,000 pieces of mail in southern Maine were left behind due to operational changes, though the Postal Service disputed that figure. Delays in mail across the country come as new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has instituted cost-cutting measures.

Under state law, absentee ballots can be requested beginning three months before the election. The state was still revamping its online form in early August, though voters were still able to request absentee ballots via written request or over the phone.

But absentee ballots cannot be mailed until 30 days before Election Day under state law, giving even early-bird voters only a week or two to fill out ballots if they want to mail them 15 days in advance. Voters can return ballots by mail or drop them off at town offices themselves, but cannot have someone else return their ballot for them unless they designated that person at the time they requested their ballot.

Dunlap’s office, along with Gov. Janet Mills, is exploring the expanded use of absentee ballot drop boxes for November so fewer voters would need to mail their ballots. But Mills said last week that planning was still preliminary, citing a backlog in the production of secure drop boxes.