LEWISTON — Two years ago during the June primary, Lewiston saw 837 absentee ballots and a total voter turnout of 4,830.

On Tuesday, the city finished processing more than 4,000 absentee ballots and roughly 1,600 cast at the polls, numbers that City Clerk Kathy Montejo called a complete “flip-flop” from 2018.

The numbers in Lewiston provided a snapshot into similar results elsewhere in the state, as voters mostly stayed away from polling locations in favor of absentee voting due to COVID-19.

According to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, more than 200,000 people had requested absentee ballots as of Monday, about 20% of Maine voters.

Due to the surge in absentee voting, clerk’s offices around the state began counting ballots early. In Lewiston, that process began Saturday morning at City Hall. By last week, the city had already seen four times the absentee ballot requests it handled in 2018.

The primary election, delayed into July due to the pandemic, featured three-way races for the Democratic nomination to face Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and the Republican nomination to decide U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s challenger. Also on the ballot were local school budgets and two statewide bond issues.

Montejo said she was “really pleased” with Tuesday’s turnout at the former Longley Elementary School. She said most citizens “honored the social distancing” and were “kind and understanding.” She said the slower-than-normal turnout allowed staff to maintain a cleaning schedule.

Polling locations across the state looked quite different from a normal Election Day due to COVID-19 precautions.

Montejo estimated that between 80%-90% of voters in the building were wearing masks. All election workers were required to wear either a mask or face shield, but there was no requirement for voters.

At the former Longley School, there were receptacles where voters placed their pens after voting, rather than each voter reusing them. The drinking fountains were covered with caution tape, and lines on the floor marked 6-foot gaps to keep people at a distance if lines were long. There were hand sanitizer stations and election clerks used spray bottles to clean voting booths.

Other municipalities were seeing similar trends.

In Auburn, of the 4,076 voters who cast ballots, about 2,500 were absentee.

In Rumford, Town Clerk/Treasurer Beth Bellegarde said that as of 4:30 p.m., the turnout was steady but slow, at only 400 people. She cited COVID-19 and heavy rain as deterrents.

When combined with more than double the number of absentee ballots — some 800 — the total, however, was about average for a primary vote in Rumford.

In Jay, Town Clerk Ronda Palmer reported 154 voters by midday, with a total of 606 processed at that point including absentee ballots.

Bethel saw absentee numbers increase six-fold. More than 300 absentee ballots were issued, which is 250 more than the last primary that preceded a presidential election.

Staff photographer Russ Dillingham, and staff writers Donna Perry, Pam Harnden, Bruce Farrin and Matthew Daigle also contributed to this story. 

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