Maine is a national leader when it comes to the way it runs its elections. Programs such as same-day voter registration, Clean Elections public financing and a paper record of every vote that can be relied on in the event of a recount put our state in the forefront of making sure all voters have a chance to make their voices heard on Election Day.
As a result, Maine is a perennial leader in voter turnout … in November elections, anyway. Primaries are another story.
There’s a bill before the Legislature to do something about that. LD 211 would open primaries to voters not registered as members of a party, adding more voices to the mix when we choose nominees. Open primaries would require candidates to campaign to a broader swath of the electorate and could produce better choices for voters in November.
As a state that prides itself on political independence, and has long had more people register to vote without joining a party than belong to any party, this is a reform long overdue.
The current system of closed primaries is left over from an earlier time, when political parties were stronger organizations that were responsive to a politically diverse group of voters. Un-enrolled voters are allowed to vote in a Maine primary only if they pretend to join a party for three months. It’s a sham many voters find distasteful and a bureaucratic hurdle that effectively shuts out 40 percent of the electorate.
In 2018, both the Democrats and Republicans had hotly contested multi-candidate races for governor. Between the two parties, about 280,000 people cast ballots, which represented about a 27 percent turnout. A minority of the electorate got to choose the choices that everyone else would see on Election Day.
At least there were choices in November. In some elections, the primary offers the only choice or the only choice that matters. Voters who are shut out of the preliminary round often feel they have no real choice in the general election and have to vote for the candidate they dislike the least, instead of expressing a preference for a candidate that they like the most.
Primary elections affect government too much to remain in monopoly control of parties that represent only a minority of voters. Maine should open these taxpayer-funded elections to all voters.