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Maine officials say voter turnout 'far exceeds' other referendum-only elections

Voters wait in line in South Portland on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2021.
Mark Simpson
Maine Public
Voters wait in line in South Portland on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2021.

It’s an off-year election in Maine Tuesday without any statewide races and only a single contest to fill a vacant seat in the Legislature. But elections officials say they were seeing modest voter participation as Mainers weighed in on three statewide ballot questions plus local issues.

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows described turnout across Maine as "slow and steady" based on visits to polling locations and reports from clerks around the state. But Bellows noted that just over 100,000 Maine voters had already returned absentee ballots as of Tuesday morning, while another 20,000 had been requested by not yet returned.

“Now that's only about 20 percent of the number of absentee voters that we saw in 2020,” Bellows said Tuesday afternoon. “But it's still very significant and far exceeds earlier, referendum-only elections pre-COVID, like 2019."

Question 1, which seeks to stop Central Maine Power's high-voltage transmission line through western Maine, was at the top of many voters' minds as they paused to speak with reporters outside of polling stations. And that's not surprising given that the YES and NO campaigns have spent more than $80 million combined trying to sway voters — by far a record amount for a referendum in Maine.

"The most important issue is definitely the CMP corridor,” said Marcus Welch of Lewiston, who voted “yes” on Question 1 to stop construction of the 145-mile project between CMP and Hydro-Quebec.

"I don't really get how it's green. No one is really arguing how it makes any real sense,” Welch said.

Hadan Kauffman, a retired chemistry teacher from Belfast, also listed Question 1 as his top priority for voting on Tuesday. But unlike Welch, Kauffman voted “no” because he supports construction of a corridor that he believes will have environmental benefits.

"We have to think globally, not locally,” Kauffman said Tuesday morning outside of one of Belfast’s polling locations. “We don't have to let our emotions get riled up because we think we are being taken advantage of when it's the whole world that is being taken advantage of.”

Question 3 also appeared to have brought people out to the polls. If approved by voters, the constitutional amendment would state that Mainers have an inherent right to grow, raise, harvest and consume food of their own choosing. The lowest-profile initiative on the ballot, meanwhile, was Question 2, which sought voter approval for the state to borrow $100 million for road, bridge and other transportation projects around the state.

Bellows wasn't ready to venture a guess about what percentage of voters will have cast ballots by Tuesday evening. But Bellows said her office will be looking closely to see what portion of voters cast absentee ballots in order to gauge how widely the process will be used in future elections.

“We know that absentee voting in Maine is very convenient and accessible,” Bellows said. “We have no-excuse absentee voting and you can vote absentee in person. But it does remain to be seen is that sustainable? Is that something that people are really committed to doing?"

The polls will close at eight o'clock.