Susan Mooney (from left) Alice Kelley and Bob Seessmann open and flatten early ballots at South Portland City Hall on Wednesday afternoon. Poll workers will start feeding the ballots into counting machines on Friday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

For years, the western Maine vacation town of Newry used the same small, wooden black box to safeguard the ballots of its 328 registered voters until they could be hand-counted on Election Day.

The box was retired this year in favor of a tabulating machine that can count 11 ballots per minute. It is expected to make quick work of a large portion of the 125 absentee ballots the town sent out to voters when it begins processing ballots on Thursday ahead of the Tuesday election.

Maine and the nation are seeing record shares of absentee voting during the pandemic. More than 417,000 people successfully returned ballots here as of Wednesday, a figure that equals 54 percent of 2016 turnout. Ballots must be returned to clerks by Election Day and Mainers can vote in person at their municipal offices until Friday.

But after a flood of ballots were returned by mail in early October, some officials say people are now largely voting in-person or putting their ballots in drop boxes. Some towns are taking advantage of virus voting changes made by Gov. Janet Mills to get a jump on processing ballots that have come in, but others say an influx in early voting makes doing so impossible.

Laurie Walker, Newry’s deputy clerk, said the new machine and the additional three days of ballot processing time will probably make Nov. 3 easier on her team. Ballots cannot be counted until after polls close, but workers were allowed to open them on Tuesday and feed them into machines ahead of election night.

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As election results are expected to be delayed across the country, clerks in Maine are expecting only minor delays. All of the changes should lead to an earlier night for Walker, who said the town was working until “well after 11 p.m.” during the July primary.

“They’re telling us we should be out of here by 10 p.m.” this time, she said.

Newry was one of 44 small towns that used to count ballots by hand but now has a tabulator provided by Secretary of State Matt Dunlap’s office. But of the 232 municipalities that opted to process ballots early, only 15 with new machines have opted to do so, according to the state.

It may be because they did not expect the massive jumps. In the Down East town of Machiasport, clerk Marcia Hayward said she normally sees about 20 absentee voters, but she was surprised when she got nearly 200 this year. It has kept her busy and the town “just chose not to” use the extra time.

Maine’s second-largest city of Lewiston is also choosing to begin processing ballots on Saturday. City Clerk Kathy Montejo said it is because of resources. The city has seen 1,000 people showing up to vote in person per week at a temporary voting location since Oct. 5. The city does not have the resources to oversee that process and also process ballots, she said.

South Portland Assistant City Clerk Susan Mooney locks up early ballots on Wednesday afternoon at city hall. Poll workers will start feeding them into counting machines on Friday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

That and the city’s drop box have been among the more popular methods of voting, Montejo said, a side effect of people worrying about mail delays and wanting to avoid Election Day crowds. Of the 11,500 absentee ballots the city sent to voters, about 1,300 are still outstanding and Montejo thinks most will likely be dropped off at this point.

In South Portland, election workers began processing the roughly 12,000 absentee ballots received on Tuesday, said Assistant City Clerk Alice Kelley. She said she expects to begin feeding ballots into machines on Friday and process 15,000 by the time polls close. The city has about 20,000 registered voters, she said.

The drop box has been especially popular, leading the city to empty theirs out “at least three times a day,” Kelley said. It may be because of mail delays or concerns of crowds, but the method also may hit a sweet spot between absentee and in-person voting, she said.

“I think it feels good for them to come in with the ballot and physically drop it off,” Kelley said. “Plus, who doesn’t want to save money on a stamp?”

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