AUGUSTA, Maine — A last-minute bill has been submitted to the Legislature to shift Maine from a presidential caucus state to a presidential primary state by 2016.
“I think for many people the caucuses this year crystallized support for a presidential primary,” the bill’s sponsor, Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said in an interview Thursday. “I have long expressed a preference [for a primary] because I believe it encourages wider participation of Maine voters and I believe it increases the likelihood of Maine being considered relevant in the process.”
The Maine GOP declared Mitt Romney the winner of a presidential preference poll on Feb. 11 before all local caucuses were held, a move that angered supporters of Ron Paul, who finished a close second. It also was later revealed that some votes were mistakenly not counted during the process, a revelation that led to further criticism.
Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, agreed that the change makes sense in light of what happened last month.
“I think we saw from the challenges that the Republicans had counting votes and making sure the right votes were counted … that it really raises the issue that everyone in the party needs to have a say, not just party leaders who set the rules,” he said.
Carey said Maine people are busy and a caucus requires a much bigger commitment, usually an entire Saturday.
“That’s a lot to ask,” he said. “A primary would allow people to vote absentee, to vote before or after work. It would dramatically increase participation.”
The bill has been sent to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which is scheduled hold a public hearing on Monday.
When candidates from each major party are vying for the nomination to run for president, they compete in each state either in a caucus or a primary. Caucuses are relatively informal but sometimes technical events that usually feature less participation. Primaries mimic an election in the sense that people vote for their choice.
Maine has been a caucus state for many years but has held primaries in the past. Presidential primaries were held in 2000 and 2004.
The new bill calls for Maine’s 2016 presidential primary to be held the first Tuesday after the New Hampshire primary, historically the first primary in the election cycle.
Michael Quatrano, executive director of Maine GOP, said his party would support moving to a primary system if that’s what people want.
He said some of the criticism directed at the party in the last month has been valid but he attributed some of the problems to growing pains.
“We would still need to caucus because you have to select state delegates and election clerks,” Quatrano said.
Raye said he did not discuss his bill with Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster or other party officials.
A Maine Democratic Party representative said the party is open-minded about the change.
“On our side, we actually had a really successful caucus this year and of course we had an incredible caucus in 2008,” Executive Director Mary Erin Casale said. “We’re happy to go along with whatever the Legislature decides but this would never have been needed if not for what happened to the Republicans. I think it’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction in response to their mishandling of their caucuses.”
Casale did agree with Quatrano that caucuses have benefits that primaries do not.
“They are a great organizing tool,” she said. “They give people the opportunity to meet candidates and talk about what they’re interested in.”
Primaries also likely would cost more money, although Raye said his bill stipulates that those costs would be absorbed by the state.
“My perspective is it’s very difficult to put a price tag on democracy,” he said. “There’s nothing more central to a democracy than voting.”
Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage, said the governor supports moving to a primary system but he would take it one step further by making it an open primary. That means anyone could vote, not just registered Democrats and Republicans.
Not everyone was convinced a change is needed, especially this late in the session, since the next presidential election season wouldn’t be until 2016.
Asked about the timing, Raye said: “There would not be an opportunity for me to do it in the next session. I preferred to introduce it and advocate for it.”
Sen. John Patrick, D-Oxford, was among the skeptics.
“I’m more of a traditionalist,” he said. “In caucuses, there is personal engagement of voters and opportunities to give reasons why people support one candidate over another.
“The bigger question, I think, is that in the waning days of the short emergency session, why are we getting all these bills that would be normally be heard in a regular session?”