Though the “open primaries” bill now resides in the Legislature’s dead file, the question is not going away. The two major political parties may cling to their belief that they should command all they survey, but increasingly, Maine voters would have it otherwise.
Unenrolled or “independent” voters represent more than one-third of registered voters in Maine — 35 percent as of May. That’s more than Democrats (33 percent) and more than Republicans (27 percent). Yet it is the parties, through their primary elections, that present us with candidates in the general election.
Maine voter turnout for the primaries is not so hot. In the past three midterm election cycles, 32 percent was the highest turnout, in 2010, and 12 percent the lowest, in 2014. Given the number of registered voters in each party, voter turnout and the number of candidates, a tiny number of voters select the general election candidates.
Since the most motivated primary voters tend to be the respective party bases, successful candidates in the primaries are usually those who most strictly toe the party line. Their appeal to less-devout party members and to the broad middle, the independents, is limited. The contest often becomes one between the “least worst.”
The option for those displeased with party primary results is to support candidates who enter races as independents themselves. Maine’s U.S. Sen. Angus King is Exhibit A, a centrist independent with a rock-solid constituency.
But the path to a ballot is easier than the path to winning a seat. Many independent candidates lack the background and the personal chops of someone like King and, needless to say, do not have the organizational backing of a major political party. Nevertheless, with three, four or five candidates in a race, the typically small number of votes the nonparty candidates garner is enough to work strange magic on the outcome of an election.
Ranked-choice voting is one way to offset the precarious math of multicandidate elections and open primaries could be another. A bipartisan Commission on Political Reform recommended just that, reporting that states with open primaries have higher turnout. Commission research concluded that open primaries “lead to nominees whose views are more closely aligned with the general public” and “result in more moderate and representative primary electorates.”
Just 14 states, including Maine, have closed primaries. Yet at the same time independents must ante up tax dollars for holding those primaries. There are good reasons primary elections should be run by the system that does it best, the public election system.
Despite the best efforts of party election officials, primary caucuses have experienced management problems that could affect the outcome, from long waits in line to security challenges. It may indeed be best to have the towns and state run the primaries, but they should be open to all voters or the parties should be billed by the state for the service.
“Just join a party!” That is the refrain from party members when objections are raised to closed primaries. No, thank you, we’d rather not. We asked to be able to vote in one primary, not both, without having to become a party member and remain one for 90 days.
Polling shows that 80 percent of Maine voters agree the primaries should be opened to independent voters, and 78 percent said they would support a proposal to do so. But the state Senate, with 100 percent of its members belonging to a party, and the House, with 96 percent party membership, said no. The parties would love it if we gave up after this latest rebuff. Not happening. We’ll be back.
Jill Goldthwait of Bar Harbor was Maine’s first elected unenrolled lawmaker.