LEWISTON, Maine — Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor, marked primary day for Maine’s political parties Tuesday by calling attention to state election laws he says are unfair and do not reflect a true democracy.
On Tuesday, he renewed calls to reform Maine’s election system to allow for open primaries or ranked-choice voting.
“We have let money and special interests corrupt our politics and steal our democracy right out from under us,” Cutler said in a prepared statement. “We have gone from Lincoln’s ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ to a government of the parties, bought by the special interests, for the benefit of those few who have connections.”
Cutler said Maine’s system should be reformed to allow unenrolled voters to vote for either Republican or Democratic candidates in the kind of open primary system allowed by about 20 other states.
He also suggested voting reforms that would lead the state to ranked-choice voting to ensure any future statewide candidate is selected by a majority of voters.
Cutler lost a 2010 bid for governor in a five-way race to Republican Paul LePage. Cutler won 35.9 percent of the vote to LePage’s 37.6 percent while the Democrat in the race, former state Sen. Libby Mitchell, won 18.8 percent.
Cutler is again running for governor against LePage and Maine’s 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat from East Millinocket.
On Tuesday, as Maine’s Republican and Democratic party faithful were heading to the polls to pick candidates for the U.S. Congress and a handful of other state offices, the largest swath of the state’s voters — those not enrolled in either party — were left voting only on local elections, ballot questions or local school budgets.
To vote in Tuesday’s primary, unenrolled voters — who often consider themselves “independents” — have to pick a party first and are allowed to register just before casting a vote. Maine’s voting laws are similar to about 29 other states, while only 20 states open primary voting to so-called “unenrolled.”
Of Maine’s 957,583 registered voters, 37 percent are unenrolled compared to 31 percent enrolled as Democrats and 27 percent enrolled as Republicans as of June 2, according to Maine Secretary of State records.
Since 2010, Cutler has repeatedly called for voting reform but state lawmakers, who are mostly party members, have resisted changing voting laws.
In a letter to both Michaud and LePage in June 2013, Cutler urged both men to join him in supporting changes to state election laws.
“I believe that any person who legally qualifies for the ballot, either as an independent or a party candidate, has the right to run,” Cutler wrote in that letter. “At the same time, given the importance of the office, Maine’s governor should be elected by a majority of the voters. I have supported, and will continue to support, run-off elections and ranked-choice voting as common sense reforms to accomplish this objective.”
Cutler had urged Michaud and LePage to support the changes so they could be in place for the 2014 elections.
On Tuesday, Cutler continued to point out what he labels as unfairness in Maine’s election and campaign finance laws.
“Under current law, written by the parties of course, independent candidates have to collect twice as many signatures to get on the ballot and can only raise half as much money for their campaigns,” Cutler said.
LePage’s campaign spokesman Brent Littlefield dodged a direct answer to Cutler’s call for ranked-choice voting or open primaries, saying instead that both Michaud and Cutler were fighting over an ever-decreasing pool of voters.
“It seems to me that liberal politicians Michael Michaud and Eliot Cutler are fighting over a smaller group of voters who want to expand welfare, increase government and harm jobs,” Littlefield said in an email message. “Gov. LePage will stay focused on job creation while Michaud and Cutler court that increasingly small group of voters with these issues.”
Michaud’s staff did respond to Cutler’s 2013 letter and never heard back from Cutler on the issue, according to Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Michaud’s campaign.
Reinholt provided a copy of that message from Michaud staffer Peter Chandler, in which Chandler asks if Cutler intended to have ranked-choice voting or instant runoff voting for state office elections or just for the governor’s race.
The letter also notes Michaud would be willing to discuss any legislation to change election laws in Maine but did not indicate whether he supported ranked-choice voting or open primaries.
Like Littlefield, Reinholt on Tuesday did not issue a statement on open primaries or ranked-choice voting.
Instead Reinholt said Cutler was focusing Tuesday on raising the issue of open primaries and election law reform because it garnered his campaign attention from the Maine media.
“While Eliot Cutler is focusing on what’s good for him and his political campaign, Congressman Michaud is focused on bringing people together, creating jobs, making sure people have access to health care and raising the minimum wage,” Reinholt said. “This is just another media stunt from the Cutler campaign.”
Reinholt also said Cutler never testified on bills that were before the Maine Legislature this year that were aimed at addressing his concerns.
“If he was serious about these reforms, he should have weighed in when the Legislature was considering many of them last year,” Reinholt said. “Instead he was absent.”
None of the bills offered on election reform in 2014 were passed into law.
“Cutler’s repeated calls for ranked-choice voting and other schemes represent a cynical view of our democratic process that’s designed to ensure that only liberals like he and Michael Michaud get elected,” David Sorensen, the spokesman for the Maine GOP said in a prepared statement. “Maine’s voting traditions should not be bent and manipulated in order to satisfy Eliot Cutler’s obsession with stopping conservative reforms.”
Requests for comments from Democratic Party leaders were not immediately returned Tuesday.