October 14, 2012

Popularity of absentee voting continues to grow

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

GARDINER -- Like hundreds of other people across Maine, Sue Gove has already voted.

click image to enlarge

Mike Bradley fills in his absentee ballot in a voting booth in a hallway near the city clerk's office on Thursday morning in Augusta City Center.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Martha Burns stacks and date stamps a stack of absentee ballots that were mailed into the city clerk's office on Thursday morning in Augusta City Center.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The 53-year-old Republican walked into Gardiner City Hall last week, dropped off her ballot and crossed one civic duty off her to-do list.

She and her husband, Michael, are headed to Florida soon, so they wanted to make sure their voices are heard.

"I watched the (presidential) debate, I've done a lot of reading, so I'm pretty well-informed," she said.

City and town halls across Maine have been inundated with requests for absentee ballots for weeks and mailed out the first batch in early October. Portland has already received requests for 5,210 absentee ballots and is on pace to match the 2008 level, when 34 percent of voters cast their ballots without having to show up on Election Day, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

"Right now, it's kind of a trickle, but if something big happens, then all of a sudden (the clerks) see a lot of people show up," she said.

Every municipal building in the state has mini-voting stations set up to accommodate those who want to vote in person well in advance of Nov. 6.

Some people come in to pay a sewer bill and ask for a ballot, clerks said. Other voters said they like to vote at home so they can help a sick family member fill out the paperwork.

While early voting and absentee voting are different in some states, in Maine, all voting before Election Day is considered absentee balloting.

Regardless of whether a voter picks up a ballot and takes it home, or gets a ballot and votes immediately at city hall, they are given the same absentee ballot, clerks said.

Voters can request an absentee ballot until Nov. 1, and the deadline to return it to the local town or city hall is Election Day, Nov. 6.

Voting early is a trend that has accelerated in the last decade, said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono.

"It's a pretty dramatic shift," he said. "Campaigns go into close-the-deal mode a month before Election Day."

That's because many states have relaxed voting rules to make it easier for people to vote early, he said.

In Maine, voters don't need to provide a reason to vote absentee and registered voters can request their ballots anytime between now and Thursday, Nov. 1. Maine is one of 32 states, and the District of Columbia, where any qualified voter may vote before Election Day without an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Statistics show that in 1972, just 4 percent of voters cast ballots before Election Day, and by 2008, that number had grown to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Elections Project at George Mason University.

"If you're a campaign and you've got the resources to do it, it makes sense to lock in support as early as possible," Brewer said.

The downside for voters? You're out of luck if you change your mind.

During the 2010 governor's race, independent Eliot Cutler had a late surge that brought him to within two percentage points of the winner, Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Cutler made a late appeal to supporters of Democrat Libby Mitchell -- even going as far as trying to find a way to allow them to change their votes -- but many had voted early for Mitchell.

In Gardiner, City Clerk Deirdre Berglund estimates one-third of the city's 4,360 registered voters will cast ballots before the election. In Augusta, the percentage could go as high as 50 percent, based on the number of requests received so far, said City Clerk Barbara Wardwell.

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