PORTLAND — In early voting, the voter shows up, fills out a ballot and drops it in a ballot box. Not so in Maine.
Here, the voter requests an absentee ballot from a town clerk. The ballot is sealed in an envelope, signed and delivered to the town hall. The envelopes are checked against the voter roll and then stowed away for weeks until they’re opened, put through a tabulator or placed in a ballot box, and counted on Election Day.
Because a legislative effort to amend the Maine Constitution to allow early voting failed, town clerks will soon be dealing with another flood of absentee ballots, which can be requested by week’s end.
“Early voting would be a godsend for the clerks in terms of reducing paperwork,” said Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin, whose office handled 7,000 absentee ballots in the last presidential race.
The number of absentee ballots requested in Maine has swelled since the state removed restrictions on using them. The political parties have made absentee balloting part of the get-out-the-vote efforts, and an all-time high 231,000 absentee ballots were returned to municipalities during the 2008 presidential election.
To give clerks a break, the state now stops issuing absentee ballots on the Thursday before an election, unless there’s a special reason. Clerks can petition to begin processing ballots the day before the election.
But it’s still a lot of work.
The state has twice experimented with true early voting in which voters show up in person to cast ballots. Pilot programs were held in referendum elections in 2007 and 2009. Participating municipalities came back with positive reviews, and the system worked well, said Julie Flynn, deputy secretary of state for elections.
That led to a proposal to amend the Constitution to allow early voting in candidate elections, but it failed to reach two-thirds majority in the Legislature.
The debate came down to whether allowing early voting — in municipalities on a voluntary basis — would give cities an advantage in voter participation compared to smaller towns, many of whom don’t have regular town office hours, much less resources to keep a polling station open for days on end.
House Republican leader Ken Fredette opposed early voting because voluntary participation would make it unfair. “The larger communities that have the resources and the capacity to have two or four or six weeks of early voting, I do believe that favors urban areas to the detriment of rural communities,” he said.
Even though there are concerns about unintended consequences, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap still supports early voting.
“We’ve had a lot of changes over the last 30 to 40 years,” said Dunlap. “This is just another tool that would have the benefit of helping clerks conduct elections.”
Cathy Whittenberg from the League of Women Voters remains optimistic that early voting can be adopted later. “You can already vote before Election Day,” she said. “The difference between the absentee ballot that’s available now and early voting is just mechanical.”