Legislation would allow unenrolled voters to participate in Maine party primaries

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Scott Thistle, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·5 min read
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Apr. 12—Mainers who aren't enrolled in a political party would still be able to vote in party primaries under a bill that was heard Monday by the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

The "open primary" measure was one of several bills taken up by the committee that would alter Maine's elections.

"Countless unenrolled voters lamented on the campaign trail how they could not vote in a party primary," said Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, sponsor of one of the bills. "Their taxes pay for these elections but they cannot participate."

Several others spoke in favor of the bill, and there was no opposition testimony. Still, the measure faces an uncertain future in a Legislature with few members who are not enrolled in a party.

Maxmin's bill, which, if passed, would not go into effect until 2024, would allow unenrolled voters to vote in either party's primary but does not allow voters registered in a party to cross over and vote in another party's primary.

She said her bill would help depolarize politics in Maine by allowing unenrolled voters to have more say in who the final general election candidates will be. After knocking on more than 20,000 doors during her legislative campaigns in recent years, Maxmin said the sharp partisan divide in the U.S. and Maine is at the top of voters' minds.

"The number one thing that I have heard from people is a deep frustration with our political system that leaves our constituents feeling unheard, unrepresented and excluded," she said.

Maine law only allows those enrolled in a political party to participate in that party's primary election. Voters can register and join a party on an election day, but they must remain enrolled in a party for three months after joining.

Currently, 32 percent of Maine's registered voters do not belong to a political party, according to the Secretary of State's office. Democrats continue to hold the single largest voting bloc in Maine, with 35.6 percent of all registered voters, while Republicans make up 28.4 percent and Green Independent Party members make up 4 percent.

Maxmin and other supporters of the bill pointed to studies showing that both younger voters and military veterans are less likely to be enrolled in a political party. According to the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of veterans and 44 percent of Millennials are not enrolled in either political party.

"Veterans are more effected by Maine's closed primary laws than any other group," said Alicia Barnes, an Augusta resident and a Navy veteran of the Iraq War. "Many of us have gone to war to protect our democratic ideals and yet here in Maine we are prohibited from fully participating in our democratic process."

Nine states already allow for broader participation in primaries, including Maine's New England neighbors of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Rep. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, a co-sponsor of the bill said. Meanwhile Maine was among only 14 states with completely closed primaries, she added.

"Mainers are practical and appreciate common-sense solutions to problems that need not exist," Grohoski said. "For a state that values and takes pride in our voter participation, it's clear we can do better."

Implementing a semi-open primary system in Maine would reduce some election costs but increase others, according to Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and Patti Dubois, who represents the Maine Town and City Clerks Association.

Bellows, who testified neither for or against the bills, said an open primary would increase ballot printing costs and require the state to spend $10,000 to reprogram the software for its central voter registration system, which tracks voter enrollment and participation.

Dubois said primary elections are always confusing for voters and generally more difficult to administer for local election officials. She said multiple ballot styles, vote tallies by party, ensuring voters are issued the correct ballot and general voter confusion over party enrollment and participation all combine to make primaries more complicated.

"It was evident in the presidential primary of 2020 that many voters, who were unenrolled wanted to participate in the presidential primary election," Dubois said. She described the cumbersome process of voters having to wait in different lines to register and enroll in a party on the day of the election.

"This double check in slowed down the voting process and resulted in longer waiting times for many voters," Dubois said. "These long wait times may have actually resulted in voters being disenfranchised if they were unable to wait."

Other bills before the committee would not only allow unenrolled voters to participate in party primaries but also streamline voting in general by creating a single primary ballot. Another bill would move the newly created March presidential primary to June, so it aligns with primary voting for congressional candidates, governor and the Legislature.

The legislation to move the state's presidential primary from March to June would cut election costs for the state and local election officials by eliminating an the expense of another election every four years, said Bellows.

But she said changing the date to June could also reduce Maine's influence in the presidential election cycle because its primary election would come after many other states in the U.S.

In the weeks ahead, the committee will decide how to combine the bills before it votes to either recommend passage or defeat of the measures by the full Legislature.