State of Maine: We all pay the tab, but not everyone’s invited to the table 

Like a Maine crocusopen primaries poke their head above ground in Augusta almost every winter only to freeze to death in a late winter snowfall or wither and die in the spring. What’s up with that? 

A primary election is the process of nominating candidates for the general election. That happens in a number of different ways among states and among parties. Maine is one of just 14 states that have “closed” primaries, meaning only members of a party may vote in the party primaries. 

In some states, qualified voters register with no reference to party and request the ballot of their choice at the polls. Some states have “top two” or “top four” primary elections where there is a single ballot and the top two (or four) vote-getters are on the general election slate, regardless of party affiliation. What LD 231 proposes is “semi-open” primaries. Unenrolled voters could request the ballot for either party—but not both—in a primary election. They would not have to register in the party to do so. 

Of Maine’s three political parties, Republicans and Democrats like things the way they are. Maine’s Green Independent Party, at their state convention in 2015, decided to allow unenrolled voters to vote in their legislative and gubernatorial primaries.  

You may only vote in the Republican or Democrat primary if you register as a party member, which you can do as late as Election Day itself. Then you must remain a party member for 90 days, at which time you can revert to unenrolled status or join a different party if you choose. 

This option is invariably prefaced with “All you have to do…” The trouble is, many unenrolled voters do not want to do itThey prefer not to be affiliated with a party. The party membership requirement would seem to make sense in that it is their primary to nominate their candidate for the general election. The fly in that ointment is that unenrolled voters are helping pay for those primaries. 

The tab for primary elections is picked up by government, not the parties, so we all support them through our taxes. Yet unless we enroll in a party, we cannot vote in most primaries and maintain our independent status. If the parties wish to restrict their voters to members only, should they not pay for them themselves? 

Further, the party membership requirement gives the parties bragging rights when they can announce how many more voters joined around election time. There is no mention of the fact that it is not exactly willing membership. The most recent election cycle is the first time in a long time that membership in either of the two largest parties surpassed that of unenrolled voters. It was a wildly contested election. Voters wanted in. There was only one way to get there. 

One of the reasons the parties give for restricting primaries to members only is that if unenrolled voters are allowed to vote, they will conjure up schemes to disrupt party elections. Like everybody secretly meeting on the beach in Lamoine and coming up with a way to nominate a terrible Republican/Democrat who will NEVER win the general election!  

If unenrolled voters were capable of that level of mischief, we would already control the universe. At the same time we are suspected of dastardly plotting, unenrolled voters are accused of being disinterested in politics. Not true. We just like to keep our options open. But we would like to participate in the nominating process, not only because we pay for it but because it could have a salutary effect on the health of our government.   

Studies indicate that it is the more ideological members of the political parties who vote in largest numbers in the primaries. Hence, candidates nominated tend to be left or right of party center. That leaves all of us in the middle-ish looking at two unpalatable candidates in the general election. If the voting base were broader in the primaries, there might be candidates nominated who are more appealing to a larger number of voters. This has been demonstrated to increase voter turnout. 

The system is hard to change. Of the 186 members of the 130th Maine Legislature, all but five are Democrats or Republicans. (One Senate seat is vacant.) So far, those parties have agreed on this: The status quo is fine. It is extremely difficult to make a change in the electoral process if the major parties do not see an advantage. So far, every bill proposing open primaries for Maine has gone down to defeat.  

Thanks, RepNicole Grohoski (Ellsworth), for co-sponsoring this bill for fairer elections. Most of the Hancock delegation is on board, but not all. Check in with your legislators and let them know you think now’s the time. 

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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