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Published — October 26, 2020

Maine, an otherwise progressive voting rights state, won’t change absentee ballot deadline

Proponents worry voters won’t have a chance to fix mistakes ahead of Election Day.


Maine led the nation in voter turnout in both the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterms, at nearly 73% and 66%, respectively. 

Along with Vermont and Washington, D.C., it stands alone in placing no restrictions on voting by people who have been convicted of a felony, including while they’re in prison.

The state extended the window for registering to vote by mail this year, and deployed secure drop boxes for absentee ballots in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

And it’s the only state with an innovative ranked-choice voting system, which triggers an automated runoff should no candidate receive more than 50% of the vote, by counting second-choice preferences. (Massachusetts will consider adopting one in a statewide referendum on the November ballot.) Maine’s system will be in effect for the first time in a presidential election this fall.

But unlike some states that are using a postmarked-by standard, mail-in ballots received after Election Day in Maine will be thrown out.

Here’s a look at some of the most significant voting rights and access issues facing the state.

Absentee ballots

In 2016, about 140,000 Mainers voted by absentee ballot. As of Friday, 443,505 had been requested and 345,379, or one-third of the state’s registered voters, had already been returned. 

Concerns about a national slowdown in U.S. Postal Service delivery amid big growth in absentee balloting have led voting rights advocates in many states to push for absentee ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, instead of received by then.

Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, rejected calls to issue an executive order making that change, and a lawsuit by voting rights advocates to force the issue through the courts was ultimately rejected by the Maine Supreme Court, whose members were mostly appointed by Democrats.

Advocates also want to make sure voters are given the chance to correct mistakes they might have made in submitting their ballots — a forgotten signature, for example. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap has instructed local election officials to provide that opportunity, and Mills signed an executive order extending the time that cities and towns can process absentee ballots ahead of the election. But the state Supreme Court rejected advocates’ request to also require that “cure” process via court order.

“The concern … was that folks who are not familiar with absentee voting would be disenfranchised because of minor errors,” said Kristen Schulze Muszynski, director of communications for the Maine Secretary of State’s office. “We sought to address some of those concerns with the guidance to local officials.”

But she warned that there won’t be much opportunity to notify voters and correct such errors if ballots arrive last-minute.  

“Once you get down to Election Day, there’s not going to be much time to deal with all of those things,” Muszynski said.

She said that Maine also introduced an online tracking system this year to give voters peace of mind that their ballot was received and counted.

Ranked-choice voting

Two years ago, Maine’s innovative ranked-choice voting system was used for the first time in a U.S. congressional election, with immediate consequences. In the 2nd District, Democrat Jared Golden narrowly trailed incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin. But because neither received more than 50% of the vote, the “second choice” preferences of voters who had supported third-party candidates in the race were added to the top two candidates’ totals. That threw the election to Golden, whose victory withstood court challenges attacking the constitutionality of the system.

It’s significant for Maine in part because of its long history of third-party and independent candidates. Maine has an independent U.S. senator, Angus King, and an active Green Party that fields candidates in numerous races. Significant support for independent candidates have had an impact on gubernatorial races, splitting the vote. That paved the way for former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s election to two terms prior to Mills’ tenure — despite support from well under half of voters in 2010 for a candidate who later described himself as “Donald Trump before Donald Trump.”

Proponents argue that the ranked choice system encourages third-party participation and allows people to vote for their favorite candidate without worrying about the unintended consequence of ending up with their least favorite because of a spoiler effect, such as what happened in the 2000 presidential election with Ralph Nader. 

This year, thanks to Maine’s voting system, it will be the first time in history that ranked choice has been used in a presidential election. It has survived legal challenges mounted by Republicans that were taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.   

It could also have an impact on a U.S. Senate race in Maine that might decide which party controls the Senate. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has said that she won’t mount a legal challenge if she loses because of the ranked-choice automated runoff.

Disabled access

Settling a lawsuit brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Maine has established a new system this year that will allow visually impaired voters to cast absentee ballots using an online balloting system with screen reader technology.

Advocates argued that the visually impaired shouldn’t have to risk COVID-19 exposure to vote in person when other Maine residents this year are being afforded the opportunity to vote absentee.

Muszynski said the state already had an online system for absentee ballots to accommodate voting by Maine residents who are overseas or serving in the military, so were able to build upon that.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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