Most years around Labor Day it is only the politics-obsessed who are paying close attention to a November election. This is not most years. This year we are thinking not only about who to vote for but also how we will vote.
There will still be the option of showing up at the polls on Nov. 3, filling in those little circles by hand and feeding our ballot into a machine or dropping it into a box. But this year voters are a bit leery of standing in line in close proximity, entering a space full of fellow voters and casting a vote in person.
Fear not. There are other ways to do your civic duty. Of the alternatives to in-person voting on Election Day, which are available in Maine? What is the difference between absentee and early voting? Which methods are safe and secure? How do they work? And how do you get your ballot?
First of all, you must be registered to vote. A voter registration form must reach your local election office by Oct. 13, or you may register in person up to and including on Election Day. A photo ID is not required. On behalf of town clerks all over Maine, unless you absolutely can’t avoid it please register sooner rather than later. Election Day will be hellacious for election officials. Get thee registered ahead of the big day.
Now you are ready to vote. “Early voting” may be done between Oct. 5 and Oct. 29, in-person at your town office. Check with your town clerk for the hours of service. You can register and vote on the same day. You do not need ID if you previously voted in Maine, but if you are a new Maine voter who registered by mail you will need documentation, such as a driver’s license, state ID card, bank statement or utility bill in your name. Walk in, register if you haven’t already, request a ballot, mark it with your choices, deposit it as instructed and you’re on your way, easy peasy.
“Absentee” voting is slightly different, though it is something of a distinction without a difference. You no longer need a reason such as military service or working overseas; you don’t even need to be “absent” from home to vote “absentee.” Complete an absentee ballot application by mail, phone, online or in person starting three months before Election Day (Aug. 3) and up until three business days before an election (Oct. 29). A ballot will be sent to you by mail. Fill it out and return it. The distinction is that you do not have to vote nor return your ballot in person, though you can if you wish.
If you do return your absentee ballot by mail, of paramount importance this year is the recommendation that your ballot be mailed by Oct. 15 so you can be confident it will arrive on time. It must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day. States vary as to requirements about postmarks, but for whatever reason some mailed ballots do not have a postmark.
Mail it way early or avoid postal anxiety by returning an absentee ballot in person. Your town office will tell you where, when and how to do that. Towns will provide a secure container into which your ballot may be deposited.
As always, your mighty town clerk can answer any voting questions you have but again, do not wait until the last minute. If you have never worked as a ballot clerk and seen your local town clerks and their staff in action, it is an all-consuming job under the best of circumstances. This fall it will be Herculean.
As if election officials didn’t have enough on their hands, uncertainty about the status of the ranked choice voting referendum is pushing the printing of ballots perilously close to the day they must be distributed to voters 30 days in advance of the election.
No event this year would be complete without accommodations for the pandemic. Governor Janet Mills has issued orders on the pending election that include an extension of the deadline for voter registrations delivered by third person or mail, permission for external ballot drop boxes accessible only by the town clerk and processing of absentee ballots beginning seven days before voting day rather than four as now required.
A closing mea culpa: Last week’s column said that only Sens. Margaret Chase Smith and Susan Collins had served in both the U.S. House and Senate. Wrong. It was Olympia Snowe and Margaret Chase Smith who served in both bodies. Sen. Susan Collins went straight to the U.S. Senate in 1996. Apologies to the Senator, and thanks to the careful reader who was kind enough to offer the correction.