A bill in the Maine Legislature would allow unenrolled voters to cast a ballot in a party primary. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Chloe Maxmin of Nobleboro represents District 13 in the Maine Senate.

Mainers have a strong tradition of civic participation. Each spring, we typically flock to town meetings to greet our neighbors and to discuss and vote on the business of the town. We can disagree vehemently, but then help each other when a driveway needs shoveling or a roof needs fixing. In November 2020, an outstanding 78 percent of eligible Maine voters participated in the election — in the middle of a pandemic no less! We should all be proud.

Yet, even with great success, there is always room for improvement, which is why I’m sponsoring LD 231, An Act to Establish Open Primaries.

LD 231 would allow for semi-open primaries, which would permit unenrolled voters — often labeled as “independents” here in Maine — to cast a ballot in the party primary of their choice. Republicans would not be able to vote in Democratic primaries, and Democrats would not be able to vote in Republican primaries. That’s why we call it “semi-open.” Almost one-third of voters in my state Senate district are unenrolled voters, and it’s important to me as their representative to advocate for inclusive election policies.

Semi-open primaries are important for several reasons. First, it is simply more democratic to allow all eligible voters to participate in all elections, including primaries. It’s just the right thing to do. This is especially true when you consider that primary elections are taxpayer funded. Unenrolled voters help to pay for primary elections, but they are not currently permitted to participate. Independents will end up voting for party candidates in the fall’s general election, and they deserve a say in who those candidates will be.

Secondly, semi-open primaries will help Legislators and other elected officials be better representatives for our constituents. Semi-open primaries will encourage ongoing, authentic, engagement with unenrolled voters — instead of simply waiting until we are courting votes for the general election.

Of course, many of my colleagues already engage in such authentic outreach with all of their constituents, regardless of party affiliation. But, we can always do better. Supporting semi-open primaries legislation is an easy and effective way to bring unenrolled voters into the fold. Once enacted, semi-open primaries will ensure that unenrolled voters always have a real seat at the table, and that is important.

Engaging with unenrolled voters is even more important now that Automatic Voter Registration is being implemented. With it, eligible Mainers who are not already registered to vote will be automatically registered when they receive or renew their drivers’ licenses at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles or when they apply for or renew their eligibility for MaineCare. One only needs to look at the experience of Oregon to understand why this is relevant: From 2016 when Automatic Voter Registration was enacted to December 2019, 80 percent of Oregon voters registered via the system were registered as unenrolled voters.

My colleagues often ask how I’ve been able to win in a rural, heavily Republican, district. The key, I’ve found, is to do more listening than talking, engage with voters authentically, and to meet folks where they are. Where I come from, we talk about values, not party. We know that Mainers value their right to vote, and polling shows that 80 percent of Maine voters support semi-open primaries. It’s time for those of us in the Legislature to listen.