AUGUSTA, Maine — An election timing quirk is making an uphill attempt for a third-party U.S. Senate candidate to get on the 2020 ballot even harder in an unforeseen consequence of Maine’s switch from presidential caucuses to a March presidential primary.
That change could affect the slate of candidates in Sen. Susan Collins’ heavily nationalized re-election race in November. Four Democrats are vying in a June primary for the nomination to oppose the Republican. A Green and four independents are trying to get on the ballot as well.
Lisa Savage, an educator and activist from Solon running as a Green, has perhaps the toughest path: There are 41,000 Greens in Maine, with eight times more Democrats and seven times more Republicans, but all party candidates for statewide must gather 2,000 signatures from party members by March 15 to make the primary and be officially nominated.
Past Green drives have relied on registering new members, but the progressive third party has not run a statewide candidate since 2006. It may be hard for Greens to make a comeback in 2020 because of the high-profile Democratic presidential primary on March 3.
Mainers who were in other parties had until Friday to register as Democrats in time to vote in the primary. On top of that, the deadline to register to vote by mail or in a registration drive ahead of the election was Feb. 12. It comes at a crucial time for Savage. Isaac Schattenburg, her ballot access manager, estimated the candidate has roughly half the required signatures.
He said the campaign is running into many “Green-sympathetic” supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, who would like to help Savage get on the ballot but are loathe to give up their ability to vote in the presidential primary.
“It kind of makes an already brutally difficult task that much more punishing,” Schattenburg said.
Schattenburg said the Green candidate has raised enough money to pay for professional signature gatherers, but that getting people to target only third-party voters is a difficult task because there is easier work available.
The Maine Republican Party has launched a signature drive aiming to force a November vote to repeal a new law expanding ranked-choice voting to presidential races, while conservative Max Linn, who was disqualified from the 2018 U.S. Senate race, is wealthy and one of the candidates gathering signatures to run against Collins as an independent.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, said years ago that Greens would “almost openly collude” with Republicans who wanted them on the ballot as potential spoilers for Democrats. Maine began using ranked-choice voting in state primaries and congressional races in 2018 as a response to that so-called spoiler effect.
The new voting method may make some feel more free to vote for a third-party candidate while also tamping down their effect on a race. Dunlap said it was an unforeseen consequence of the shift from presidential caucuses to primaries, which the Legislature made last year after long lines and driving times plagued the 2016 caucuses in Maine.
“I think it’s just circumstantial, not intentional, but it does make it much harder for a statewide third-party candidate,” Dunlap said.