Voters fill the booths at Freeport High School on Tuesday. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)

Long lines greeted voters Tuesday at many polling places in southern Maine, even though tens of thousands of people already cast absentee ballots in the midterm elections.

The crowds started as early as 6:30 a.m. in some towns, and turnout was steady in many places even after the start of the regular workday. Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has predicted turnout as high as 65 percent, a robust figure for an off-year election. By the time early voting ended last Thursday, about 140,000 voters had returned absentee ballots to their local election officials, more than a 30 percent increase over 2014.

Just before noon at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Dunlap said he was seeing and hearing about a steady stream of voters across the state.

“Right now, we’re talking about the middle of the day, and that’s really the bellwether of the turnout,” Dunlap said, gesturing at the line out door of the auditorium. “You expect heavy turnout early in the morning and then after work, but throughout the day to see lines, that tells you we’re having higher than usual turnout.”

Election officials said hotly contested races are the driving force behind the predicted turnout.

Mainers will elect a new governor, decide party control in the Maine Legislature and settle contested races for Congress that could help determine the balance of power in the U.S. House and Senate.

Maine voters will also answer five ballot questions, one of which proposed to increase taxes on higher-income earners to pay for home health care workers. The other four questions would allow the state to borrow money to pay for sewage system improvements, transportation infrastructure, and programs and improvements in the University of Maine and Maine Community College systems. And they will vote on local races and issues, ranging from school improvements to moratoriums on marijuana businesses.

In some places, voters spent an hour or more waiting to cast their ballots. The line stretched out the door in Buxton at 7 a.m. as voters stopped on their way to work. Thirty minutes after the polls opened in Cape Elizabeth, more than 200 people were still waiting to vote at the high school gym. At the Exposition Center in Portland, more than 100 people waited to register or vote at 8 a.m. Heavy turnout in Berwick and South Berwick snarled traffic and clogged both downtowns in the hour after polls opened. In Brunswick and other towns where the schools are closed on Election Day, some parents had children in tow. On Harpswell neck, drizzle and fog did not deter voters.

“We’ve even had lines at times,” said Donnette Goodnow, a veteran election volunteer who was helping at the poll inside the Elijah Kellogg Church. “It’s been much busier than normal for a midterm.”

She said she was especially impressed with the number of young people who registered to vote in this election.

“That’s been the coolest part.”

Ariana Purington, a student at Southern Maine Community College, stood in line at Brunswick Junior High School to vote, clutching the registration card she’d just filled out. It was the 18 year-old’s first opportunity to vote and she wasn’t about to miss it. Even with long lines in Brunswick – with waits to pick up ballots of up to 20 minutes even after the pre-work crowd of voters had come and gone – Purington said it only took “two minutes” to get registered that morning at the junior high.

One Democrat in particular inspired Purington.

“I really like our choice for governor, Janet Mills,” Purington said, after she’d cast her ballot. “She has everything that I would want in a governor. I went to the Pride Parade in Portland in June and I saw her and that was what made me really want to vote for her.”

Luke Stone, a 45-year-old Westbrook resident, wasn’t as enthused about the candidates.

“They say a lot, so you never know if they’re going to follow through,” he said.

Still, he came to the city’s community center to cast his ballot.

“I can’t complain about election results if I don’t vote,” he said.

Heather Boucher, 51, said her dad made her promise to vote in this election. As she left her polling place in Portland, she planned to call him and show off the “I voted” sticker on her backpack.

Both are Republicans, and he wanted her to be counted in competitive races on the state ballot.

“I think the people who put out negativity are not responsible citizens,” she said.

Ciera Lazarus and Samuel Fessman, both 24, also made a pact to vote this year. They went to the Exposition Center in Portland together Tuesday morning. Both supported Democratic or independent candidates, they said, and they were most interested to see the results of the close governor’s race.

“If I want to make change, I’ve got to get in there,” said Lazarus, pointing to the line of waiting voters.

Daniel Ueblacher, 65, chose Republican Shawn Moody for governor. Having recently moved to Maine from New York, he said he expected the campaign season here to be “more pleasant” than in his former state, but he did not find that to be true.

“I got tired of the television ads,” Ueblacher said.

Nancy Zimmerman adjusted her “I Voted” sticker outside her polling place in Westbrook. She said she felt like people she knew were more engaged in this election.

“I see it a lot more on my Instagram and Facebook,” she said.

Dunlap said there were some reports of technical problems with voting machines, but nothing was affecting peoples’ ability to vote.

Voting begins at various times depending on the town or city, but most polls open at 7 or 8 a.m. All Maine polls will close at 8 p.m.

Maine residents 18 and older can still register to vote, even on Election Day. More information about all the decisions facing Maine voters Tuesday can be found at pressherald.com.

Use of the website is free leading up to and during the election, and it features a tool that allows readers to easily read about the races on their state and local ballots. Also watch pressherald.com Tuesday night for live election results from Maine and around the country.

Staff writers Gillian Graham, Bob Keyes, Mary Pols, Eric Russell, Carol Coultas and John Richarson contributed to this report.

filed under: