Absentee Voting on the Rise

(from Maine Townsman, August/September 2009)
By Kate Dufour, Legislative Advocate, MMA

Just as tweeting, interfacing and instant messaging are becoming commonplace forms of communication, the seemingly unstoppable drive for convenient, instantaneous access is also breaking traditions with respect to other activities, such as voting. Whether to avoid lines on election day or simply get the task of voting out of the way as soon as a decision has been made, more voters across the country are taking advantage of the opportunity to cast ballots weeks before the actual election.

Maine is not immune from these changes in the voting culture even though the state is steeped in a tradition that calls upon folks to gather annually in a common meeting place to decide their community’s budget and ordinances.

In 2000, for example, the Legislature enacted a bill that moved the state’s absentee voting process from one which required a voter to state a reason for voting by absentee ballot to a no-reason process, thereby making it easier for any voter to cast an absentee ballot. This year, the Legislature enacted a bill creating a pilot program to test the feasibility of an “on-going” absentee balloting process whereby voters could choose to automatically receive absentee ballots for every election without having to actually request a ballot each time.

As these laws change, so do the voting behaviors of Maine residents. According to the Secretary of State, absentee voting is on the rise in Maine. In the 2000 presidential election, 76,672 Maine voters were issued absentee ballots. During the 2004 presidential election, the number of absentee ballots issued increased to 166,226. In the 2008 presidential election the number of absentee voters jumped to 233,348, representing 33% of the total ballots cast.

In addition to making the process more convenient for voters, absentee voting has become a tool of greater strategic importance among political activists who strive to get people to cast ballots as soon as their minds are made up on an issue, thus locking in that vote. It is likely that this “early to the polls” strategy will be employed this year, as interested parties try to convince Maine voters on their side of the question to quickly cast votes deciding the fate of the most controversial questions on the ballot, such as the proposed repeal of the same-sex marriage law, the repeal of the school consolidation law, and the TABOR II and the Auto Excise Tax initiatives.