In this Oct. 30, 2020, file photo, Susan Turcotte, assistant city clerk, disinfects a table after it was used by a resident to fill out an absentee ballot during early voting in Lewiston. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Absentee voting is slower so far ahead of the Nov. 2 referendum election after Maine set records last year with more than 500,000 people voting absentee amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 81,000 voters had requested absentee ballots, according to data from Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ office. More than 32,000 voters have already returned their ballots. The election features  the high-profile referendum aiming to stop the Central Maine Power corridor, a bond question and a constitutional amendment establishing the “right to food.” Many municipalities, including Portland and Bangor, also have local elections.

It suggests a potentially low-turnout election by Maine’s standards after roughly 62 percent of voters used absentee ballots in 2020 when state officials encouraged the voting method to reduce crowding at the polls amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year’s election also saw record overall turnout, with more than 828,000 Mainers ultimately casting ballots. Off-year election turnout in Maine has varied widely over the past decade, with absentee voting typically making up only a small part. In 2017, when the November referendum election included a high-stakes question on expanding Medicaid, more than 347,000 voters cast ballots, with only about 15 percent voting absentee.

Absentee ballots are likely to account for a greater share of overall voting this year due to higher awareness following last year’s push and lingering health concerns as the COVID-19 pandemic persists. Virus cases in Maine are higher now than they were in October 2020 with the delta variant continuing to rattle the state, although more than 80 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, according to federal data.

Democrats have requested absentee ballots at a higher rate than Republican or unenrolled voters, making up slightly more than half of requests so far, according to state data. That fits with the trend from last year, when Democrats voted absentee more than Republicans.

Voters can request absentee ballots up until 5 p.m. Oct. 28. Ballots must be returned to municipal offices by 8 p.m. on Election Day, the same time that polls close.