LEWISTON — While next week’s election would normally be a quiet primary for clerk’s offices across the state, many are approaching absentee voting like they would a presidential election.
As of Wednesday in Lewiston, the city had received some 4,000 absentee ballot requests, more than four times the amount received during the June 2018 primary.
According to City Clerk Kathy Montejo, a handful of election workers will begin counting the absentee ballots Saturday morning, three days prior to the July 14 election.
In Auburn, clerks have received 2,720 requests. For the last 20 years, they’ve only seen between 115 and 500 absentee ballots for a primary election.
Tuesday’s election, already rescheduled due to COVID-19, has forced municipalities to reassess how to safely hold an election, with most urging voters to take advantage of absentee ballots while preparing polling locations with health precautions.
As of Tuesday, the state had received nearly 180,000 absentee ballot requests, a record for a primary.
The Sun Journal reached out to clerk’s offices in its coverage area to get an overall picture of how many residents are voting absentee during the pandemic, and how they plan to handle the increased workload. Most municipalities have seen ballot requests at least double. Some smaller towns have seen them quadruple.
In the case of Norway, the town has seen 532 requests as of Wednesday. According to the clerk, the average number for a primary hovers between 10-20.
Most clerks say they have hired additional election staff to process absentee ballots, perhaps offsetting what is expected to be a slower day at the polls.
Still, clerks are concerned that long lines — or even the semblance of lines due to 6-foot social distancing rules — will turn people away.
“Hopefully more people will vote absentee. The lines to vote could be long and slow on Election Day. I’m afraid people will be frustrated,” said Norway Town Clerk Shirley Boyce.
Auburn City Clerk Sue Clements-Dallaire said, like Lewiston, they will take advantage of the state law that allows clerks to process ballots the Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday before the election. She’s not concerned that the increased volume will slow things down.
“While this is a high number of absentee ballots requested for a primary election, we’ve processed much higher volumes for the general elections,” she said.
Montejo said processing ballots could be more time consuming, however, based on the number of ballots each voter is returning.
“Each return envelope will have 2-3 ballots depending on the types of ballots they are entitled to,” including a candidate ballot if enrolled in a political party.
“This aspect is what is creating the work for the towns — some towns who normally vote their town budget via in-person town meeting are now doing it by ballot, so they have two or more extra ballots per voter to process,” Montejo said. “It takes time to remove each ballot, unfold and insert into the voting machines.”
And due to COVID-19, clerks are not hiring as many workers to count absentee ballots in order to spread out the work space.
“We will have the plexiglass partition screens separating some workers, and we have also hired three sets of workers from the same family, so they do not have to social distance (and) can work closer together,” Montejo said.
With large numbers of ballots still in the hands of voters, Montejo said she’s been encouraging voters to get them in the mail by July 8 to allow for adequate mail time. All ballots must be received no later than 8 p.m. on election night in order to be included in the tally.
In Farmington, Town Clerk Leanne Dickey said 1,167 ballots had been requested as of Wednesday morning, 783 more than the 2018 primary when now-Gov. Janet Mills appeared on the primary ballot.
“I just think more people are doing it this way. We encouraged it,” Dickey said. “Whatever is in house will be counted Friday, with some counting Saturday if needed, so we won’t be clogging lines on Election Day or trying to count hundreds of ballots Tuesday night.”
She said guidelines from the Secretary of State will be followed Tuesday. Only eight people can vote at one time versus 32 normally, and about eight people can be waiting inside.
“It’s going to be a very challenging day. We’ll do the best we can,” she said.
Rumford Town Clerk/Treasurer Beth Bellegarde said as of Tuesday, the town had received 713 requests for absentee ballots, more than double the number in previous years.
The clerk’s office will begin processing Monday morning, which Bellegarde said “relieves the pressure of trying to get them processed during election night.”
Outside the clerk’s office, there is a drop box for people to place their absentee ballots, she said.
The town has seen more than 200 requests as of Wednesday morning, roughly quadruple the average 30-40 ballot requests during a typical primary.
There has been 408 absentee ballots as of Tuesday afternoon, which is nearly 50% of all votes cast in the 2018 primary. The town will begin counting absentee ballots Friday, with up to four additional people hired to help.
In Wilton, 370 people have already voted by absentee ballot. The town clerk said there were 26 absentee votes in the 2016 primary.
As of Wednesday, Oxford had received 275. In 2018, it saw 35 absentees ballots requested.
The July 14 primary includes a three-way contest for the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Susan Collins as well as a Republican race for the nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Jared Golden in the 2nd District, both being decided by ranked-choice voting.
Most municipalities are also using the election to conduct a school budget referendum.