An engaged, informed citizenry making its voice heard through the vote is a key pillar of our democracy. Maine voters, however, have a real obstacle course to run through if they wish to cast a vote for a candidate for their parties’ presidential nomination. To vote, Maine voters must navigate and participate in a caucus. History shows that few do.
It’s time for Maine to return to an inclusive, confidential and transparent voting process — the same process used for other state and federal positions: the statewide primary.
The statewide presidential primary is uncomplicated, accountable, familiar and will increase voter turnout.
More people will vote (and more people have voted in the days when Maine still had a presidential primary), in statewide primaries than in caucuses. Just as they do for other statewide elections, Maine voters will travel to their local voting station, or vote absentee in the presidential primary, rather than having to travel to a caucus — perhaps nearby for voters in urban Maine, or many miles away for voters in rural Maine. Primary voters will not have to wait in the cold for hours, as many did in Portland in 2016, or worry that registration will have closed by the time they get through the line. Primary voters won’t have to wait around listening to speeches, but can vote and leave, just as with other elections.
Voters will no longer miss the opportunity to vote because they have to work, can’t find childcare, are a caregiver, don’t have transportation, don’t drive or are home-bound. Voters with busy lives, particularly new voters, will be more inclined to vote in a traditional statewide primary than travel some distance to wait for an hour or more to cast a non-private vote in a caucus.
With the opportunity to vote locally, confidentially, and with the usual option for mail-in ballots, more voters will turn out, just as they did in 2018 for the last Maine non-presidential primary, where the turnout of about 213,000 voters dwarfed the record turnout of the 2016 caucuses of about 67,000 voters. A mere 7 percent of registered Republican voters and 15 percent of registered Democratic voters participated in the 2016 caucuses, compared to the last Maine statewide presidential primaries in 2000 when 38 percent of registered Republicans and 23 percent of registered Democratic voted.
A statewide presidential primary has more accountability and transparency than the caucus system. Caucuses are not required to report turnout to the state or the public, and votes are counted by the party holding the caucus. Statewide primary votes are counted by trained election officials, certified by the Secretary of State and released to the public, just as they should be.
Increased turnout and transparency means that winning candidates will be selected by more voters across the state, better reflecting the candidates’ strength and support as they move on through the nomination process across the country.
Caucuses continue to have an important role to play for the political parties in developing platforms and holding leadership elections. Even with the switch to a presidential preference primary, caucuses will be required, and they will provide opportunities for party activists and all who want to roll up their sleeves and get to work on presidential and other campaigns.
Our democracy requires an informed, engaged electorate that makes its voice heard through the vote. The presidential primary will truly ensure Maine voters can exercise one of the most important responsibilities of a citizen.
LD 1626, the bill which creates a presidential primary, has passed in the Maine House and Senate, but requires funding – just over $120,000 – to be allocated in order to go into effect. The Legislature should quickly act together to appropriate that funding.
Let’s abandon the obstacle course that has kept too many Mainers from the presidential nominating process. It’s time for a presidential preference primary, starting in 2020.
Ann Luther is the advocacy chair for the League of Women Voters of Maine.