BANGOR,Maine — In general elections, especially in a politically independent state like Maine, unenrolled voters are almost always the deciding factor both in choosing candidates and settling issues.
But primary elections can be different creatures, experts say.
Registered Republicans and Democrats each have plenty of names to choose from as they look to nominate their candidates for governor. However, there is also a substantial people’s veto referendum question about tax reform on the June 8 ballot that has taken a back seat to the race for the Blaine House.
Question 1 reads: “Do you want to reject the new law that lowers Maine’s income tax and replaces that revenue by making changes to the sales tax?”
Assuming most Democrats will vote no on Question 1 and most Republicans will vote yes to repeal, the fate of the recent tax reform effort could be decided by those without a party affiliation.
“Of course independents can vote in the primary, but will they? I don’t know,” Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Question 1 seeks to overturn a law passed last year that lowers Maine’s top income tax from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent for all residents earning less than $250,000 a year, although in some cases, the rate will be even lower.
To make up for the lost income tax revenue, the bill broadens the state’s sales tax to more categories of goods and services and raises the meals and lodging tax from 7 percent to 8.5 percent.
A recent poll suggests Mainers are divided on tax reform.
According to poll results released by Critical Insights market research firm in Portland, 43 percent said they favored keeping the law, while 38 percent said they would do away with it. Nineteen percent were undecided. The poll was based on 600 phone interviews between April 28 and May 7 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Patrick Murphy, a pollster with Pan Atlantic SMS Group of Portland, said he hasn’t done any polling on Question 1 yet.
“From what I hear, people seem to be very cynical about this,” he said. “They don’t trust that this reform plan will help them.”
Because the June election is a primary, Murphy said the results of Question 1 could hinge on which party turns out more voters. Right now, he said, that looks like the Republicans, but Murphy said independent voters could be the wildcard.
As of this month, there were about 975,000 registered voters in Maine, according to Dunlap; 317,977 are Democrats, 259,502 are Republicans, 32,501 are Green Independents and 365,690 are unenrolled.
“People are probably thinking more about barbecues than ballots right now, but the governor’s race will bring voters out,” said Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“It’s not one party or the other that has a strong primary draw, they both do. My hunch is that independents are less likely to turn out in June.”
Dunlap also said unenrolled voter turnout could play a role in the four separate state bond questions that are on the ballot:
• A $26.5 million package supporting offshore wind research and energy efficiency initiatives at the state’s colleges and universities.
• A $47.8 million transportation bond that includes money to preserve rail assets in Aroostook County as well as fund improvements to port and highway infrastructure.
• A $23.75 million bond funding community economic development, including conversion of the Brunswick Naval Air Station to civilian uses.
• A $10.25 million bond to fund water quality projects and wastewater management infrastructure.
While the bonds will draw some voter interest, tax reform will take center stage among the referendum questions.
Based on response to tax reform so far in the business community, Republicans could be more divided on the issue than Democrats, according to Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine.
The state Chamber of Commerce and the local chambers of commerce in Bangor and Portland have supported reform. The Maine Innkeepers Association, the Maine Restaurant Association and the National Association of Realtors have opposed the tax shift.
Dunlap largely agreed with Brewer’s assessment, noting that only one Republican candidate, state Sen. Peter Mills, supported the tax reform law.
So far, neither side of the Question 1 debate has spent a ton of money on advertising, although that could change in the coming days as June 8 approaches.
“There is certainly time for each side to get their message out in the last two weeks,” Brewer said. “I believe the tax reform issue is important enough for voters to show up, but I’m not sure most people see it that way.”
Melcher said the bigger problem with tax reform is its complexity.
“I think people are more confused about the issue than apathetic,” he said.