Absentee ballot requests and confusion on the rise

ELLSWORTH — Requests for absentee ballots have come fast and furious in recent weeks, and so has the confusion around absentee voting.

“People are thinking that they’re already getting the ballot, that we’re going to mail one right then,” said City Clerk Heidi-Noël Grindle. “We’re not even going to have them until Oct. 2. We don’t actually have ballots right now. We just can take the requests.”

Grindle said the ballots typically aren’t finalized until the end of September, per city and state rules.

“You can request an absentee ballot 45 days before an election, but we don’t have ballots until 30 days before,” she said.

“I don’t even know that they have all the candidates yet,” she added, noting that, “Our nomination papers aren’t due back until Sept. 18.”

“I’ve got people calling, coming into the office, wanting to vote right here right now,” said Jacob Gran, town clerk in Bucksport. “We’re not going to have the ballots for another month. I don’t recall ever working an election where people started requesting absentee ballots this early.”

Grindle said requests for absentee ballots are up substantially; as of early September, there were already 800. She said she expects several thousand to come in by the deadline, which (for electronic requests) is 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 29.

“Maybe half our voting list” will vote absentee, Grindle predicted. She said that in the last presidential election in 2016 there were around 2,000 absentee ballots cast, a bit less than half of the 4,401 voters who turned out (75 percent of the city’s then 5,903 registered voters). That was exceptionally high turnout, said Grindle, as she expects this year to be.

Several town clerks said there’s been confusion not only about when voters will receive their ballots (although the top of the application does indicate that ballots won’t be available until at least October) but also because numerous groups have been urging voters to request ballots in recent weeks, even if they already have.

“Political parties send out absentee ballot request forms in hopes that that voter will vote,” said Gran. The forms may even be already filled out with the voter’s information, said Gran, and include an envelope addressed to the municipality. But that means clerks often get duplicate absentee ballot requests or calls from voters concerned as to whether their request went through.

“They think it’s the town or municipality that sends out the requests, which we don’t,” Gran added. Ballots can be requested on the state’s website:, by calling your town clerk’s office or by filling out a form (available on the website) and mailing it to your municipality.

Sullivan Town Clerk Deana Workman said she’s already had 75 absentee ballot requests, a substantial uptick compared to recent years. “Crazy. It’s off the charts. It’s unprecedented. Before, we would be getting them at the end of September, first part of October, when the ballots are coming out. We’ve never gotten this early.”

Workman said the confusion, which she blamed in part on the different groups soliciting for requests and on media coverage of voting concerns, “is very, very, very hard on clerks in the different towns.”

“You’re just explaining it 100 times a day,” said Workman. In addition, she said the town is still dealing with all of the ballots from the primary election in July, where more than half of those who cast ballots did so absentee. A recount was requested in that election and the town has until Sept. 16 to settle it.

“I’m working on two elections at the same time,” said Workman. “It’s a frustration. But it’s not the voters, it’s the whole process.”

Workman said she’s also hearing from voters perplexed by the difference between mail-in and absentee voting.

“There’s no such thing in Maine as a mail-in ballot,” said Workman. “It’s only an absentee ballot.”

Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they can mean different things. Absentee voting arose during the Civil War, to allow soldiers who were “absent” from home during elections to cast a vote.

Today, laws vary by state, but two-thirds allow absentee voting without an excuse, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while in the rest of the states, voters are required to provide a reason they can’t make it to the polls. Voters, however, still have to request an absentee ballot — it isn’t automatically mailed to them.

There are also a handful of states, including Washington, that automatically mail ballots to all eligible voters without asking them to fill out a request or an application. In the case of Washington, for instance, voters are sent pamphlets with information on the candidates and issues along with their ballot. In all-mail voting states, polling places may also be open on Election Day if voters prefer to vote in person.

It’s unclear what in-person turnout will be like in November, but the three clerks interviewed said they had enough workers to (hopefully) keep things running smoothly, 6 feet apart.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” said Grindle. She noted that reports of delays at the post office may “push people back to voting in person.”

Grindle said if a voter does request an absentee ballot but then decides to vote in person instead, that’s allowed, but it creates a lot more paperwork for clerks who have to process and fill requests.

Residents who do change their mind should bring their absentee ballot if they can so it can be voided by election staff. But staff will be checking and double-checking to make sure residents aren’t voting twice, which Grindle said has happened on occasion.

“What they cannot do is vote the absentee ballot, give it to us and go up and vote,” she said. “Most people I don’t think have that intention. There are times they may have mailed it back to us and forgotten.”

Grindle said staff keep lists of voters and are checking and double-checking them to make sure duplicate ballots aren’t cast.

While clerks don’t want duplicate ballot requests, residents who have requested an absentee ballot but don’t have it by mid-October “really should be calling their town office,” said Gran. “Don’t wait until last minute if you haven’t received your ballot.”

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Bar Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]