COVID-19 has changed a lot about our lives in 2020, including how we vote. Millions more Americans are expected to vote by mail in 2020 due to the pandemic. In late September, the Press Herald reported that more than 230,000 Mainers had already requested an absentee ballot. Official data from the Maine’s Department of the Secretary of State’s website show more than 529,000 absentee ballots have been requested as of this writing for the 2020 general election.
By comparison, roughly 265,000 Maine voters voted absentee in the 2016 general election. Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap estimated as many as 600,000 Mainers, or a little more than 57 percent of registered voters, could request an absentee ballot this November. Of the more than 529,000 absentee ballots requested thus far in 2020, 528,778 have been issued, 491,345 have been returned and 4,217, or about 0.85% of returned ballots, have been rejected.
President Trump has criticized voting by mail extensively this cycle, though to be fair, the president is more concerned about universal mail-in voting than he is with traditional absentee voting. Maine allows what is called no excuse absentee voting, meaning any registered voter can request an absentee ballot from their town. Anyone who is registered to vote in the municipality where the ballot is requested will be mailed one, and the ballot can be returned by mail, at a ballot drop box location (if your municipality has one) or by turning it over in person to your municipal election clerk.
While there may well be legitimate concerns with universal mail-in voting schemes in the states that have adopted them, Maine’s absentee ballot process is a tried-and-true system. A voter must be registered to request the ballot. A municipal election clerk verifies the voter is registered before issuing the ballot. The voter fills out the ballot and returns it in the manner they choose, and the clerk verifies that the signature on the back of the envelope matches a signature on file with the town. The process is simple, easy and protected.
However, voting by absentee ballot provides no guarantee that your vote will be counted on Election Day. This is because voters often make mistakes, whether it’s forgetting to return the ballot, returning the ballot too late or failing to sign the back of the envelope before returning it, among other mistakes.
Surprising numbers of Maine absentee ballots were never returned or were rejected by local election clerks in recent cycles, though the majority of ballots were rejected for not being returned. In the 2020 primary election, 205,532 absentee ballots were issued to Maine voters but only 185,365 were returned. In total, 22,310 ballots issued by the state in this cycle were rejected by local clerks, or about 12% of issued ballots.
Due to the record volume of Mainers voting by mail this year, the state will likely see record levels of rejected absentee ballots. While the bulk of absentee ballots are rejected for failing to be returned, voters often make a number of preventable mistakes that result in their ballot not being counted.
In the 2016 presidential election, more than 750,000 mail-in ballots, or about 1.2 percent of all ballots returned, were rejected by local election officials. The rise in absentee and mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic is sure to result in even greater numbers of rejected ballots in 2020.
How can Mainers ensure they cast a valid ballot in 2020? Voting in person remains a great way to vote. Despite health and safety concerns stemming from the pandemic, voting in person is safe and gives voters access to resources they may not have available to them when casting an absentee ballot.
In August, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said voting in person is safe if municipalities follow recommended health and safety guidelines, which they will be in Maine.
“If you go and wear a mask, if you observe the physical distancing, and don’t have a crowded situation, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to [vote in person],” Dr. Fauci said in an interview with Deborah Roberts of ABC News.
Secretary Dunlap has also said voting in person will be safe in Maine this November. On Oct. 8 he joined Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah during a weekly coronavirus briefing to discuss what safety measures are being implemented for the general election.
Dunlap said that all polling places will be open for in-person voting on Nov. 3 and each location is subject to capacity limitations and social distancing and sanitation requirements, including the use of personal protective equipment by poll workers, physical barriers between voting stations and single-use pens for marking ballots. This could result in longer wait times to vote this year, but he ensured each polling location will be safe for in-person voting.
“One of the things that I want to emphasize in this process is that we worked for three months before the primary with Dr. Shah and his team to make sure we can conduct an election on a statewide basis in a safe way,” Dunlap said on Oct. 8.
“In our examination of the numbers posted by the CDC in the weeks that followed the primary [election], we saw no elevation in the number of infections which tells us that, if you follow the guidelines and use things like facemasks, then we have a very strong chance of defeating the spread of the coronavirus and that people can vote, participate in our democracy and do so without fear.”
If you anticipate needing help to fill out your ballot this year or you’re skeptical about whether or not your absentee ballot will be accepted, voting in person remains a safe and effective method.
If you do vote by absentee in Maine this cycle, be sure to request and return your ballot in a timely manner — as soon as you can request and return it (so your ballot can be cured before Election Day if you make a mistake) — and don’t forget to sign the back of the ballot envelope before returning it.
Forgetting to return an absentee ballot and failing to sign the back of the envelope are among the top reasons ballots are rejected in Maine. The 2020 general election is being held on Tuesday, Nov. 3. Don’t make these preventable mistakes to ensure your vote is counted.