State of Maine: Open primaries killed again



Alright, independent voters. You know where you stand. That would be on the outside, looking in. For the millionth time (rounding down) the Maine Legislature killed a bill that would have permitted unenrolled voters to vote in primary elections.

It was a modest proposal. Unenrolled voters could show up at the primary, request one party ballot (not both) and cast a vote for a party nominee. Currently unenrolled voters can do the same thing — almost. The catch is that they must enroll on the spot in the party of their choice, and remain a captive, sorry, remain a member of that party for 90 days.

This, of course, is the solution many party members recommend. “Just join a party!” Thank you ever so much, but most unenrolled voters have chosen that status because they do not want to join a party. Nor should they be forced to do so. Pick up a newspaper or turn on your TV if you would like to get a glimpse of why.

Those who supported the change worked hard. Really hard. And it didn’t miss by much this time. Perhaps it is getting more difficult for the parties to deny a change that, according to polls, 65-80 percent of voters want. However, some party members cling to the idea that independent voters will hold clandestine gatherings in the back 40 and wreak havoc with their primaries.

We will nominate Bozo the Clown for one party! Mickey Mouse for the other! We are unengaged voters who can’t decide where our politics lie. Simultaneously, we are both unengaged and so engaged that we will mastermind a plan to subvert the primaries and break the hold the parties have on hand-picking their candidates.

In the House of Representatives, the final vote against the bill was 89-45. Fourteen members were absent and two excused. That’s over 10 percent of the House. Where were those guys? Anyway, it was a thumping. All supporters on the final vote were Democrats.

In Hancock County, the two Republican representatives voted against the bill. Reps. William “Billy Bob” Faulkingham of Winter Harbor and Sherm Hutchins of Penobscot were joined by Brian Hubbell of Bar Harbor, the only county Democrat to oppose the bill. Democratic Reps. Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth, Sarah Pebworth of Blue Hill and Genevieve McDonald of Stonington all supported opening the primaries. Rep. McDonald went further; she was a co-sponsor of the measure.

The Senate vote was much closer and a little less lopsided. It lost by just two votes. Twelve Democrats and four Republicans supported the bill. The senator who made the motion to kill the bill was Ellsworth Sen. Louie Luchini. Sen. Kimberley Rosen of Bucksport voted in favor of passage.

The Portland Press Herald supported open primaries. Bah, Portland! Closer to home, so did the Bangor Daily News and Hancock County weeklies The Ellsworth American and the Mount Desert Islander.

Once again, the 37 percent of Maine voters who choose not to be in a political party will have to make a “lesser of two evils” choice, picking between the two general election candidates presented to them through the party primaries.

To be fair, there is one way in which that 37 percent is involved in the primaries, and that is when it comes to paying for them. Whatever cost is incurred at the state or municipal level to hold them, the cost of the primaries is borne by all taxpayers, enrolled in parties or not.

Some states have required the parties to cover the cost of primaries if they choose to keep them closed. We must be careful what we wish for. The alternative is party caucuses where the general election candidates are selected. The last round of party caucuses, in the 2016 presidential election, was so chaotic that there is a bill in to switch to a presidential primary in Maine.

This is not to castigate those party officials who did their best to run an orderly and responsible caucus. It is more that the events were overwhelmed by turnout, and the caucuses inherently are not as secure or transparent as a municipally-managed primary. So maybe we should not be encouraging the parties to run the primary process themselves. Instead, we could continue to hold primaries within the town election structure and then send the parties a bill for their portion of the cost.

And this will really happen, yes? No. It is not easy to make a change proposed by unenrolled voters in a system almost exclusively owned and operated by party members. Not easy, but not impossible. Perhaps the time has come to submit this one to the people. It is a suitable matter for a citizens’ initiative: a simple question with a yes-or-no answer, easily explained, with no complicated policy or statutory language lurking in its depths. Anybody?

jillgold@gwi.net

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.
Jill Goldthwait

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