Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, listens to proceedings in the State House in Augusta. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats picked state Sen. Shenna Bellows as their nominee for secretary of state Tuesday evening after a first-ever ranked-choice vote, all but assuring her ascension to the office and title as the first woman to hold the position when the full body elects the state’s constitutional officers Wednesday.

There were few major policy differences between Bellows, of Manchester, and opponents former Rep. Tom Bull of Freeport and outgoing lawmakers Sen. Justin Chenette of Saco, House Majority Leader Matt Moonen of Portland and Reps. Craig Hickman of Winthrop and Erik Jorgensen of Portland.

They agreed on the need for progressive voting system changes, including paying for postage for absentee ballots, instituting an online voter registration option and automatically sending absentee ballots to voters who request them. But they deviated on individual interests and leadership styles.

Those changes could come on the heels of an unprecedented election. The state saw record turnout largely fueled by absentee voting last month amid precautions during the coronavirus pandemic. Those precautions were on display at the Augusta Civic Center on Tuesday, as masked-up Democratic lawmakers sat spaced out in the building’s main auditorium.

Another deviation was how the Democrats elected their candidate. Democrats voted 60-41 to select the candidates through a ranked-choice vote rather than a traditional runoff vote, cutting down on the number of ballots and time needed to count the votes.

Bellows’s election is nearly certain. Although Republicans put up former Auburn state senator and 2nd Congressional District Republican primary candidate Eric Brakey to challenge her, his nomination is mostly a formality because Democrats control both chambers. She will replace current Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who is term-limited and running for state auditor.

Bellows said her primary goal would be to strengthen voter identification privacy while making the voting system more user-friendly and modern. She said she would pursue an election auditing process and promised to embark on a listening tour throughout the state when in office to build trust and encourage transparency.

“If we as Democrats want people to trust the efficiency and capability of our state government to address big-picture issues like health care, we must first show them we are capable and efficient in the everyday issues,” she said.

Her victory means a special election would need to take place to fill her seat. Her district includes the towns of Chelsea, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Hallowell, Manchester, Monmouth, Pittston, Randolph, Readfield, West Gardiner and Winthrop.

The former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Bellows previously ran for U.S. Senate in 2014 and would be the first woman to serve as secretary of state. She has served two terms as a state senator from Manchester and previously co-chaired the Labor and Housing Committee and the Senate Ethics Committee. She has also served on the Legislature’s judiciary committee. Bellows is currently the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine’s executive director.

She has been involved in some of the key Maine voting issues in the last decade, leading the 2011 Protect Maine Votes Campaign to maintain same-day registration and resisting the federal mandate to comply with the federal Real ID program.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey and State Treasurer Henry Beck are likely to reassume their roles after being nominated for second terms Tuesday night. They will be opposed by Republicans former House minority leader and lawyer Alex Willette of Mapleton; and outgoing Belgrade lawmaker Dennish Keschl, who previously sat on the Legislature’s budget committee.

Dunlap, as the sole candidate for the post, received the party’s nomination for state auditor at the end of the night. He will be opposed by Benjamin Lombard, the treasurer of the state GOP party and a certified public accountant.