Here in Hancock County, the June primary election was notable for just one reason: voters stayed away in droves.
This newspaper’s unofficial tally put the turnout at a dismal 13.1 percent of all registered voters, with a turnout below 10 percent in almost half of the county’s municipalities.
And the only reason the overall turnout wasn’t even smaller is because a handful of towns had votes scheduled on local issues that attracted voters who may not have been enrolled in any political party.
The small voter turnout makes the case, in the strongest possible terms, for open primary elections here in Maine and elsewhere. The current primary election process totally ignores well over one-third of the state’s registered voters – a percentage larger than the enrollment in either the Republican or Democratic parties.
There are a number of compelling arguments for an open primary in Maine. The selection of candidates for the general election no longer would be controlled by a handful of political activists. With unenrolled voters participating, the turnouts would be larger, encouraging parties to search out candidates with general appeal rather than those extremely committed to liberal or conservative philosophy. And that leavening effect likely would encourage more moderate candidates to throw their hats into the nomination ring.
An open primary process also would diminish the power of the two major parties, power which they hold by virtue of their ability to determine which candidates will be presented to all voters in general elections. An open primary process also would lead, over time, to a more deliberative and less confrontational process, both in Congress and in state legislatures.
Some years ago, in his book “The Parties Versus the People,” former Republican U.S. Rep. Mickey Edwards ably made the case for open primaries. “When all of a state’s voters, rather than merely its activists, have a voice in determining the results of the election process, there is a far greater chance that the winners will be candidates who are more willing to accept compromise as a necessary ingredient of government.”
We hold little hope that, without a grassroots campaign, an open primary process will become reality here in Maine. Because the legislature, and in most years, the governor’s office, is controlled by one of the two major parties, there is little interest among political leaders for change.
But such a campaign would be a proper focus for a citizen initiative. And surely a majority of Mainers would coalesce behind an effort to end blind partisan rule and give all citizens more of a voice in the election process.
Until or unless that happens, we can resign ourselves to the reality that the largest single block of Maine voters will remain disenfranchised from participating in the selection of those seeking to become their elected representatives. Primary turnouts will remain at exceedingly low levels – just the way the major parties like it.