In March 2016, some Democrats in Portland waited for hours just to get into Deering High School, where the city’s presidential caucus was held. Others, frustrated by the long wait or unable to devote so much time to picking a candidate, left without registering a preference for a party presidential nominee. In Brunswick, hundreds of Democrats remained in line as the day’s program began.
Democratic organizers pointed to heightened interest in the contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the high turnout, with many new voters showing up to caucus for the first time. Maine currently uses Democrat- and Republican-administered caucuses to select each party’s presidential nominee, rather than primaries run by the state.
The 2016 Democratic caucuses set a state record for turnout. Yet, across Maine, only 15 percent of registered Democrats participated that year. Only 7 percent of enrolled Republicans participated in their party’s nominating process.
This is not an inclusive and effective way to choose a party nominee for the presidency. In 2000, when Maine last had a presidential primary, turnout was more than twice as high.
There are currently two bills being considered by the Maine Legislature to return the state to a presidential primary system. They are worthy of strong consideration.
LD 245 reestablishes presidential primaries in Maine and requires that they be held on a Tuesday in March. LD 1646 would also create a presidential primary system with a requirement that the voting be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March. Because they are so similar, the bills are likely to be combined.
Maine has used the caucus system for most of its history. In 1987, lawmakers passed a law allowing parties to use presidential primaries. That complex law was replaced by a simpler version in 1995 and both the Maine Democratic and Republican parties held presidential primaries in 1996 and 2000.
The primary law was repealed in 2003 after the parties expressed a preference for a caucus system, and the state sought to save money by returning the process and expense of picking party presidential nominees to the parties. Caucuses can be useful organizing tools for political parties.
Maine is one of only 10 states that use caucuses instead of primaries. Kentucky uses them only for Republicans and Washington only for Democrats.
In 2012, after problems with Republican caucuses, there was emergency legislation in Augusta to drop caucuses in favor of primaries. It resulted in a resolve that directed lawmakers to consider the issue again in the next legislative session, but the issue quietly died in 2013.
After 2016’s problems, a bipartisan bill to return to primaries easily passed the Legislature and was signed by then-Gov. Paul LePage. The law directed the Secretary of State to study the costs of a primary. The Legislature did not act after the secretary’s 2017 report and the primary law sunset in 2018, leaving Maine with a caucus system.
Primary elections have the advantage of consuming less of voters’ time. They use secret ballots; traditional caucuses require participants to physically group together to support their candidate — though Republicans in 2016 held caucuses with secret ballots. Primaries are held at the usual polling places in each community. Political party leaders decide where caucuses are held, and they happen in far fewer locations than elections.
But, the ease of participation with primaries comes at a cost. LD 245 carries a price tag for municipalities of more than $850,000 every four years. Although supporters of the switch to presidential primaries suggest this figure is inflated, towns will incur costs to hold an additional election every four years. They should not be stuck with that cost.
If lawmakers decide to adopt a primary system and the state foots the bill, they should consider making the primaries open to unenrolled voters — who count for about a third of the state’s voters — and allow them to cast a ballot in one of the party’s primaries.
Maine holds primaries for governor and state and federal legislative offices. Aligning presidential elections with this system will increase participation, which is a win for democracy.