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It is a little hard to believe, but the June 14 primary election is right around the corner. And while many of the notable primary races this election cycle are local ones, this year’s primary could make statewide history: This could be the last time unenrolled voters are prevented from participating in a party primary.
The Maine Legislature passed a bill, LD 231, into law that will eventually allow Maine voters who have not registered with a political party to cast a ballot in either the Democratic or Republican primary, including presidential primaries. This is known as a semi-open primary system.
Unenrolled voters can currently enroll in a party on Election Day and vote in that party’s primary, but they must join the party. After doing so, they must remain in the party for at least three months before they can change their enrollment.
Under the semi-open primary law, they will be able to remain unenrolled.
The bill became law on May 8 without the signature of Gov. Janet Mills. No matter how the new law made it across the finish line, this is a good outcome. It does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2024, so it will not apply to the upcoming primary this year.
We’re generally skeptical of changes to election procedures, and we doubt this change will suddenly usher in a wave of increased primary participation or greatly limit political polarization. But we do believe it can help, both in engaging more voters (particularly younger voters) and broadening the typically polarized primary electorate.
Sen. Chloe Maxmin, a Democrat from Nobleboro, explained to fellow lawmakers last year why she introduced this legislation. She discussed campaigning in a district she said is roughly one third Republican, one third Democratic and one third unenrolled voters. As of November 2021, according to data from the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, unenrolled voters across the state totaled 361,602 compared to 399,135 enrolled Democrats and 315,907 enrolled Republicans.
“Countless unenrolled voters on the campaign trail lamented how they could not vote in a party primary. Their taxes pay for these elections, but they can’t participate,” Maxmin testified last year. “They will vote on the primary winner in the November general election, but they have no say on who that candidate will be.”
Maine recently moving back to presidential primaries rather than party caucuses is yet another reason to move forward with semi-open primaries. Primary elections are paid for by the Maine people, and the Maine people — yes, even unenrolled voters — should be able to participate in them.
There is bipartisan agreement on this proposal. Sen. Matt Pouliot, a Republican from Augusta, testified last year as a co-sponsor of the bill.
“In Maine, unenrolled voters currently outnumber Republicans… Now more than ever, Republicans need to engage with unenrolled voters in order to continue building our base,” Pouliot said. “I assume my friends across the aisle are saying the same thing, so inaction is not an option for us. I believe this legislation will give both parties an opportunity to engage more voters, voters who may or may not choose to eventually join a party.”
Along with current lawmakers, at least one former state and federal legislator sees value in the semi-open primary approach: former Sen. Olympia Snowe.
“Power resides with the people through the ballot box,” Snowe said in a statement circulated by the group Open Primaries Maine last year. “In order to help ensure that candidates better reflect the ideological pragmatism of most Americans, Maine should enact semi-open primaries.”
We said it last June, and we’ll say it again.
“Semi-open primaries are certainly not a panacea for the hyperpartisanship that is gripping America,” we wrote at the time. “But making this change, with an analysis of its impact, has the potential to help engage more Mainers in our democracy through the vital act of voting.”