State of Maine: Semi-open primaries bill passes committee

The act to create “semi-open primaries” in Maine has been voted Ought to Pass as Amended by the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs. If passed by the Legislature, the bill will allow unenrolled (independent) voters to pick a party and cast a ballot in a primary election. The positive committee vote is a step forward for this perennial effort, but it is not time to celebrate.

Sadly, the vote was divided along party lines with the eight committee Democrats in favor and the five Republicans opposed. The amendment is not yet posted on the legislative website but presumably it does not alter the bottom line: Unenrolled voters may soon be able to participate in the primary elections they pay for through their taxes.

The solid support of the Democrats was a sign that this may be the year. In prior years, members of both parties demurred when it came to independent voters voting in primaries. One would think that a party trying to woo independents, who numbered 339,782 in a recent count, would extend the welcoming hand at primary time. Not so much.

In fact, it is the 295,122 Republicans who would gain the most by allowing independents to vote in their primaries. Unenrolled voters, who outnumber Republicans by almost 45,000, could provide the margin of victory for a Republican primary candidate they helped elect. Nevertheless, it was Republicans on the committee who wanted to keep the door shut.

Democrats have the majority in both House and Senate, but that does not mean this is a done deal. Only the floor votes will determine whether this is finally the year that primaries are opened to unenrolled voters.

If your name has ever gotten on a party mailing list, your inbox will be groaning under the weight of urgent messages revealing all the wondrous things the party promises to do for you. Until now, one of those things has not been to allow you to vote in the primaries. Could that finally change?

It is looking like that historic vote could take place in the actual State House. As of May 24, the Legislature reopened the Capitol Building to complete the work of this special session. Legislators in their freshman term are in for a treat.

There is no comparing working in the historic State House chambers with anywhere else. The Legislature is fortunate to have had the Augusta Civic Center these past months, enabling them to slog on through their workload, but it does not convey anything like the sense of gravity and history that comes from working in the chambers.

With what is left ahead of the Legislature before it can adjourn for the year, the members will be hard pressed to lift their heads up and look around. This is despite the wholesale slaughter of bills occurring now underway.

On May 19 alone, policy committees reported 213 bills out “Ought Not to Pass.” A unanimous ONTP in the committee of jurisdiction means the bill goes directly to the dead file, does not pass go, does not collect $200. The chambers are simply notified of the action.

The Committee on Health and Human Services wielded the biggest scalpel, carving 35 bills out of the process. Veterans and Legal Affairs was next with 30. The number of bills killed is somewhat proportional to the number of bills in the possession of the committee. At this point, leadership is grateful for any bill that does not have to go to the floor.

Far more bills were still being referred to committees to be driven through a foreshortened process with little public awareness—no public notice, sometimes no hearings, no chance for citizen involvement.

One might presume that leadership is reluctant to see masses of bills carried over to next winter’s session. Fingers crossed that Augusta will be working in some semblance of normal come January 2022, but still, a clean slate is a nice way to start a new year rather than dragging in all sorts of leftovers that must be examined for mold and then re-heated.

One wonders—do even the sponsors care passionately about many of these bills? Without the usual machinations, the mad dash to the Revisor’s Office to file an amendment that might save the bill, the frothy floor debate, the hallway pleadings of lobbyists, the rallying crowds that gather in the Hall of Flags, much of this year’s legislating is just so much blah, blah, blah.

No disrespect intended. It’s just that without the usual hubbub, getting a bill passed is a dry and academic exercise. The organism that is the Legislature is on life support, sustained by mechanical means until the sound of the bells on the third floor of the State House shock it back to life.


Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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