AUGUSTA, Maine — With nearly four of every 10 registered Maine voters choosing not to join a political party, unenrolled voters or “independents” make up the largest electoral bloc in the state.
But those voters are disenfranchised from choosing which candidates will appear in the general election, according to state lawmakers looking to open Maine’s closed primary system to independents.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, has a plan to open party primaries to unenrolled voters, giving those roughly 368,000 Mainers a chance to help pick the party candidates who appear in the general election.
While it would represent a big change for Maine, it’s not a true open primary. That’s because while independents could request Democratic or Republican primary ballots at the polls, members of a party would not be allowed to vote in any other party’s primary.
Katz said it’s a needed move to increase civic participation. But would it work?
Independents ‘do not want an R or a D next to their name’
Maine is one of 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, to allow same-day voter registration. That means unenrolled voters can already participate in party primaries by registering with the party at their polling station. Maine law requires them to remain a member of the party for at least three months, but after that, they can unenroll once again.
Katz said that even with Maine’s liberal party registration rules, independents are disenfranchised from the primary process. After all, he says, the reason they’re unenrolled is because they don’t want to be part of a party — even for three months.
“Let’s face it, there is a large bloc of people out there who do not have a great deal of confidence in either political party and just do not want an R or a D next to their name,” he said Wednesday. “That is really unfortunate, and perhaps not fair, but we must face that that is a reality.”
Proponents of open primaries — used in some form or another in 18 states — say they give independent voters a greater say in politics, and that they increase the likelihood of moderate candidates getting through to general election. In closed primaries, the thinking goes, only the most ardent partisans choose candidates, so the most partisan politicians usually win.
But studies have shown that’s likely not the case.
Where parties are strong, they’ll continue to rule
An analysis that appeared in the American Journal of Political Science revealed that opening primaries does little to ensure moderate candidates succeed. The authors suspect that’s because engaged, active party members are still more likely to show up in primaries than independents who may prefer a less strident candidate.
In other words, parties still rule partisan elections, even when independents are invited to the table.
“Parties are a powerful means of organizing a legislature because they draw together diverse interests under a common banner of controlling government,” the report states.
“Thus, when party organizations — whether formal or informal — are already strong, the type of nominating system may be hard pressed to prevent them from wielding outsize influence on the legislative process,” the report states.
Katz said he knew that changes to the primary system probably wouldn’t change the kinds of candidates, but he’s hopeful that opening the system up would encourage more Mainers to participate.
A turnout boost? Probably not.
Maine’s voter turnout in general elections is the best in the nation, but Katz said turnout figures for primaries are too low. Last year, when voters in the 2nd Congressional District chose their nominees in June primaries, just 14 percent of all party-enrolled voters participated, setting the slate of candidates for every voter, partisan or independent, in the district.
Katz called that figure “shameful,” but it’s unclear whether opening the primaries would do much to change it.
Two states, Arizona and Massachusetts, have the kind of semi-open primaries that Katz proposes for Maine. In Arizona, where primaries were opened in 1998, the results were muted.
“Independents, we were told, felt disenfranchised. They wanted a seat at the primary election table, a say in who would run this state. Sixteen years later, we’re still waiting for them to show up,” wrote Laurie Roberts, a columnist for The Arizona Republic, in 2014.
In 2012, 43.5 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats voted in primaries in Arizona, while only 7.38 percent of independents participated.
Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said the party “doesn’t see a problem that this proposal will solve.”
“We feel like the hurdle for people to join the Maine Republican Party (just register to vote as a Republican) is very low, and we feel it is fair to ask voters to sign up as a Republican if they want to be part of choosing our nominees,” Savage said Wednesday. “This is a very modest requirement.”
The Maine Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Other proposals on slate
Katz’s isn’t the only plan to reform Maine’s electoral system.
Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, has an even more radical plan, which would institute the “top-two” primary system for Maine’s governor and congressional delegation. In Daughtry’s plan, partisan primaries would disappear entirely. Instead, eligible candidates — partisan or not — would appear on one primary ballot. Then the top two vote receivers would move on to the general election.
Meanwhile, a group spearheaded by one former and one current lawmaker — independent Dick Woodbury of Yarmouth and Democrat Diane Russell of Portland — is working to establish instant runoff or “ranked-choice” voting statewide. That system is already used to elect Portland’s mayor.
Proponents of both systems say they would ensure that whichever candidate wins has the support of at least 50 percent of the electorate, something that’s pretty rare in the three-way races that are commonplace in Maine.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.