Maine voter turnout higher than expected

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Residents vote at Kennebunk Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon. In addition to the state referendum questions, Kennebunk voters were deciding two local ballot questions. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald)

Voter turnout was higher than expected across Maine on Tuesday, driven largely by interest in the referendum question to expand Medicaid.

Question 2, which asks voters whether they favor expanding government-funded healthcare for low-income Mainers, seemed to be the driving force for many residents across Southern Maine.

Michael Parent, left, gets instructions on submitting his ballots from warden Denise Shames while voting Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Portland. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

“I think expanding MaineCare is very important,” said Deborah Smith of Freeport. “The burden is being carried by the middle class and the poor, and I don’t think you balance the budget on the backs of those people.”

Catharine Chase, 71, of Brunswick said she votes no matter what, but was particularly motivated to vote yes on Question 2.

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“It sounds sort of obvious, but I think we should be providing health care to as many people as we can,” she said.

Other issues were driving voters as well, particularly in places like Portland, which had several local issues on the ballot. Voters there weighed questions on establishing rent limits, zoning reform and whether to renovate its four elementary schools.

“It’s like the presidential election,” Anne Conroy, an election clerk in Portland, said of the turnout. “It’s been constant since 7 a.m.,” she said shortly before noon at the Ward 4 polling station at St. Pius Church on Ocean Avenue.

Connie Reagan, Ward 4 warden, said 850 people had voted at that station by then.

“We didn’t expect it to be this busy,” Reagan said.

Portland voter Clayton Gallagher said he participates in most elections, but was particularly motivated this year.

“I feel this is a pretty big one for the city, especially with the rent control (referendum),” he said.

In addition to Medicaid expansion, voters statewide were considering referendums on a casino in York Country, a $102 million transportation bond and a constitutional amendment dealing with changes to state employee pensions.

Rosemary Warnock, a registered nurse at Maine Health, leaves the Merrill Auditorium voting station early on Tuesday after casting her ballot. Warnock said she was particularly motivated to vote in favor of MaineCare expansion and oppose the casino proposal. (Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald)

 

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap spent the day visiting polling places and stopped in Portland shortly before noon. He agreed that turnout seemed to be higher than expected for an off-year election in which there are no statewide or national candidates on the ballot.

“Things have been smooth and quiet so far,” he said.

Late last week, there was fear that the widespread power outages might lead to problems but Dunlap said Maine’s utility companies worked hard to ensure all municipal offices had power by the end of the day Monday.

Nearly 400 people had voted in Harpswell by 1:30 pm., a stronger than usual turnout for an off-year election. Longtime resident Ruth Weeks partly attributed the steady stream of voters to people’s desire to socialize after spending a week cooped up in their homes without power. Her own power came back on at 7 p.m. Monday night.

“People just want to get out,” she quipped.

Early voting data from the Secretary of State’s office showed slightly more than 52,000 people cast ballots ahead of Election Day. Registered Democrats accounted for nearly half, 25,719, and more than twice the number of Republicans who voted early, 12,660, which could be reflective of interest in Question 2. Democrats have been far more supportive of Medicaid expansion than Republicans.

In Buxton, which had no local ballot this year, 845 people had already voted by mid-afternoon, a high number for this type of election, Town Clerk John Myers said.

Myers said there were people waiting to vote when the doors were unlocked at 6 a.m. Twenty people voted in the first 20 minutes.

“I was happy. It’s a lot of work and when the turnout is better it’s even more gratifying,” he said.

Buxton resident Elaine Arsenault stopped by town hall to vote during a mid-afternoon lull. A few residents filled out ballots and another waited to get a flu shot.

Arsenault said she had one reason for voting: opposition to Question 1, the casino proposal.

“I don’t think we need another casino,” she said. “Two is enough.”

Stuart Steinberg of Freeport said he was most passionate about Question 1 as well.

“I hate the casinos. I think they’re terrible,” he said. “They’re just so lame. I think the casinos are a total scam.”

At the Boys and Girls Club on Broadway in South Portland, voting was steady during the first two hours the polling place was open, said Phil Gaven, the warden for the city’s District One.

Several people leaving the Boys and Girls Club in South Portland said the issue most important to them was Question 2.

Emily Newburn, a therapist, said she favors expansion because of people with mental health issues who aren’t getting adequate treatment either because they don’t have health insurance or can’t afford out-of-pocket costs.

Thea Johnson, a professor at the University of Maine Law School, said she supports expanding Medicaid to more people because “it’s the right thing to do.”

As voters left the Boys and Girls Club, which serves the east end of the city, they had the chance to sign petitions for various future ballot initiatives. A steady stream of people lined up to sign one in favor of a “people’s veto” of a law recently passed by the Legislature that delays until 2021 implementation of ranked choice voting in Maine, which was approved by voters last November.

Danielle Dalton of Buxton was at a Portland polling location at Merrill Auditorium to collect signatures for a ballot initiative to fund in-home care for seniors and the disabled as an alternative to nursing facilities, and provide better pay for in-home caregivers.

Election workers at the polling place inside Freeport High School’s gymnasium said foot traffic was surprisingly steady Tuesday for an off-year election.

Around the state, voters will get to decide races for town councils, select boards and school boards, as well as local referendums.

One local issue that will be watched closely is an effort to merge the cities of Lewiston and Auburn, a contentious topic that has been hotly debated for months.

Among some voters, there was a sense of fatigue around referendums.

Chase, the Brunswick resident who voted for Medicaid expansion, said she’s frustrated to think that even if the referendum passes, lawmakers may intercede.

Last year, voters approved four referendum questions but two of them have been overturned by the legislature – a tax increase on high earners and an effort to implement ranked choice voters. The other two referendums – increasing the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana – also have been altered or delayed.

“I guess I don’t agree with this idea that voters can approve something and lawmakers can turn right around and change it,” she said.

Dunlap said he understands voter frustration about changes to referendums after they pass but said lawmakers have always had that power.

Most polling places in Maine open at 7 or 8 a.m., but times vary by community. All Maine polls close at 8 p.m.

Residents in towns and cities across Maine can look up the location of their polling place and the candidates on their local ballots on Maine.gov.

It’s still not too late to register to vote. Mainers who are 18 or older can register at polling places on Election Day.

Results of the state and local elections, as well as elections of note in other part of the country, will be updated and posted at pressherald.com as the numbers come in after the polls close. The website also will feature interactive maps showing town-by-town voting results statewide. Results also will be published Wednesday morning in the Portland Press Herald.

Portland Press Herald staff photographer Ben McCanna, online producers Christian Milneil and Carol Semple and staff writers Gillian Graham, Ray Routhier, Peter McGuire, J. Craig Anderson and Glenn Jordan contributed to this story.

This story will be updated.

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