AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on Monday questioned both the timing and the estimated cost of a proposal that would change Maine’s method of choosing presidential candidates from a caucus system to a primary system.
At Monday’s public hearing on the bill, Raye called the process for selecting presidential candidates an “exercise that is quite literally at the center of our democracy.” At the moment, he said, that process is confusing and frustrating for many.
“I think for many people the caucuses this year crystallized support for a presidential primary,” Raye said late last week in an interview. “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.”
Representatives from the secretary of state’s office and the governor’s office testified Monday in support of the proposal, which now faces a work session in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.
Although there was no one who spoke in opposition on Monday, the bill may not have a rubber stamp just yet.
Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, co-sponsored the bill but said he’s not convinced it needs to be done this session, particularly with so little time left before the Legislature is set to adjourn.
“This may be a solution in search of a problem,” he said, adding that before this year, most caucuses had been successful.
Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, was a little stronger in her belief that the timing was suspect.
“This is a press conference, not a public hearing,” she told Raye, adding that she didn’t think the state should alter its system in a knee-jerk reaction to the Republican caucuses.
Washington County, Raye’s Senate district, was in the middle of that GOP caucus controversy last month.
Maine Republican Party leaders declared Mitt Romney the winner of a presidential preference poll on Feb. 11 before all local caucuses — including Washington County’s — were held. That move 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.
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.
The bill as written would not take effect until the next presidential primary season in 2016, but calls for Maine’s primary to be held the first Tuesday after the New Hampshire primary, historically the first primary in the election cycle.
The legislation also contains language that would allow state parties to make the decision whether to hold a primary. Representatives of both major parties said last week they were open to the idea of a primary but both also talked about the benefits of caucuses as well.
Raye said he wouldn’t mind amending the bill to require parties to play by the same rules, but he wanted to provide flexibility to state parties that traditionally have been allowed to run their caucuses or primaries as they see fit.
By shifting to a primary, all Maine municipalities would have to hold an election. That would cost an estimated $1 million, according to Raye, but that would be absorbed by the state under his bill.
Some felt the price tag could ultimately doom the bill, at least during this session, although it wouldn’t need to be funded for some time.
Asked whether a presidential primary could be held in June, when all other primaries are held, to eliminate the increased cost, Raye said he didn’t support that option. Pushing Maine’s primary so late into the spring would make the state irrelevant, he said.