Thousands of Mainers are switching to absentee voting, but many are encountering a quandary over how much postage to put on their mail-in ballots.

And they’re getting mixed answers from their town officials, who often provide either wrong advice or no guidance.

Charlie Bernstein of Augusta said a notification that came with his ballots for next week’s primary election said he would need a 55 cent stamp, the same amount as a first-class letter, to mail in his absentee ballots. But when he went to his local post office to buy the postage, he was told it would cost 70 cents because of the weight of the ballots for the Democratic primary, a local school budget and the state ballot for bond questions.

Bernstein wasn’t concerned about the extra 15 cents, but he got to wondering what would happen if he had sent his ballots with the 55 cent stamp he was told he would need. Would it go to a dead letter box? Get returned to him for more postage? Be delayed beyond the 8 p.m. July 14 deadline and not be counted?

The answers are no, no and no.

By law, the U.S. Postal Service has to deliver mail-in ballots to their destination with no delay, even if there’s inadequate postage. The city or town to which the ballot is addressed is responsible for covering the cost of any missing stamps.

“Election mail is a special class,” said Kristen Muszynski, spokeswoman for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.

Absentee balloting is up in a big way this year. Through Tuesday, nearly 180,000 absentee ballots had been requested statewide, according to the secretary of state’s office, and almost 89,000 already had been sent in.

In June 2016, the last time a primary was held in a presidential election year, Mainers turned in 10,571 absentee ballots.

The coronavirus pandemic seems to be driving most of that shift, with voters wanting to avoid putting their health at risk by casting ballots in person with other Mainers at the polls next week.

“This year, we’re just staying home from everything,” Bernstein said.

The secretary of state’s office suggests that town clerks include instructions on postage when they send out absentee ballots, but not all of them do. And even when instructions are included, they don’t always take into account the postage requirements due to differences in the weight of just the state ballot for voters who aren’t enrolled in a party, versus three ballots for a party member who also has one or more local issues to decide.

“It’s kind of best practices to slide a note (on postage) in there,” Muszynski said, although she said it’s a matter that is often stressed more for the general election than for primaries.

Many voters think that having to pay postage on a ballot amounts to a kind of poll tax, said Emily Scully, South Portland’s city clerk.

It’s not, she tells voters, because they have the option to drop off an absentee ballot at town offices or can vote in person on Election Day. Neither option requires any sort of fee, she said.

Scully said South Portland has party primary ballots, the state ballot and a referendum on the local school budget for next Tuesday’s election, so voters in her city would have to pay 70 cents to mail in three ballots. She said 5,300 South Portland voters, out of 20,500 registered, have requested absentee ballots so far, and about half of those already have been turned in.

Whether towns and cities provide advice about postage – and the accuracy of that advice – varies.

South Portland doesn’t include any instructions about postage in its ballot packages, and neither does Cumberland. Freeport tells voters they need 65 cents postage and leaves it to them to remember that a “forever” stamp is only worth 55 cents. Portland tells absentee voters that they may need to apply two stamps.

In late June, a group called Vote.org announced that it was suing Maine over a handful of issues, including the lack of prepaid postage on absentee ballots. It is also challenging Maine’s requirement that absentee ballots be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, rather than postmarked on or before Election Day as in most other states.

The group also is suing over a provision that allows election officials to reject absentee ballots without notifying the voter.

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