Bill Would Change Maine to a Closed Primary Gets Party Support And Push Back From Independents

Mar 28, 2016

The grass-roots appeal of Maine's town-meeting style presidential caucus system has long been touted by Maine political leaders. But the heightened interest in this year's presidential contests resulted in long lines at many of the local caucus sites, prompting some voters to turn around and go home. NOW A bill that would reinstate the presidential primary process first used by Mainers 20 years ago is gathering bipartisan support.

During Washington County's Republican caucus, the room quickly filled up and the parking lot was soon crammed to capacity. Rep. William Tuell, an East Machias Republican, says organizers had underestimated the level of interest in the presidential primaries. The aftermath, Tuell said, was not pretty.

"Some traveled long distances to find out they could only vote in a short window of time, others got discouraged and left, Tuell said. "I know several people who saw the parking lot full and passed right on by."

Tuell is among the GOP supporters of a bill designed to address some of those problems, which were also experienced by democratic caucus goers. Sen. Justin Alfond, is a Democrat from Portland, where more than 4,000 people showed up to participate in the discussion only to wait in line and be handed an absentee ballot. Alfond told members of the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that his bill would reinstate the closed primary system that allows registered party voters who cast a ballot for for their favorite candidate. Alfond he believes that the secret ballot system is more efficient and encourages greater participation.

"Neither the caucus, nor primary system is perfect, Alfond says. "I know there are some who say we should keep the caucuses and just try to do better next time, but just because a caucus can work well, doesn't mean that it's the best system to engage all voters. The caucus system excludes many that otherwise would vote. First not everyone has the time to dedicate to a caucus, anyone who has to work cannot spend two, three or five hours on a weekend."

Alfond's bill, which would become effective in 2020, would be paid for by the state at an estimated cost of between $1 million and $2 million. And for some lawmakers, that's too high of a price.

"Is it really acceptable to put this new cost on taxpayers for a closed primary," says Sen. Eric Brakey.

Sen. Eric Brakey, an Auburn Republican, says when unenrolled — or independent — Mainers represent the largest segment of all voters in the state, it's really not fair to ask them to foot the bill for for a process they can't take part in.

"One suggestion I would throw out if the legislature is interested in moving toward more of a primary process, maybe we just delegate the decision on this to the existing political parties and require them to pay for it whichever way it goes," Brakey said.

The committee will revisit the closed presidential primary bill again next month.