By Roger Bowen
For the better part of the last decade a plurality of voters nationally, over 40 percent, have self-identified as non-aligned voters — independents. Maine’s voting public reflects a similar trend, yet only the two major political parties — Republicans and Democrats — are able to nominate candidates for office. LD 211, “An Act to Open Maine’s Primaries and Permit Unenrolled Voters to Cast Ballots in Primary Elections,” if enacted, will remedy the undemocratic practice of excluding independents, about 37 percent of all registered voters, from participating in primaries.
Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you have to acknowledge that the percentage of registered voters who support your party has been shrinking, while voters who self-identify as independents are enjoying significant growth. National leaders of both parties craft campaign messages to appeal to independents because they realize that they cannot rely solely on their own party’s registered voters to get elected. The two major parties’ election appeals could be strengthened if they opened their primaries to independent voters. Better to capture support early, at the time of the primary, than later in the process.
Apart from party self-interest, there is an even more compelling reason to open primaries to independent voters: democracy does not work well if the electoral process is closed to a substantial portion of the voting public. Over 200 years of American history shows this much. Gradually America has expanded the franchise by eliminating property ownership by white males as a qualification, then by opening the franchise to freed African-American males after the Civil War, then by including women (100 years ago next year), and then strengthening the African-American franchise through voting rights legislation in the 1960s. With each expansion of the electorate to create greater inclusion, America’s claim to be a full-fledged democracy has gained greater legitimacy. The next logical step in our democracy’s evolution is to recognize that unenrolled voters have been excluded from the process until the general election and, thus, to enable them to participate in party primaries.
A final reason has to do with the mindset that independents bring to the process. Recent history shows the “tribalization” of party politics, with both the Democrats and Republicans hunkering down and mindlessly parroting the assigned messages that party leaders insist their followers mouth. Independents, on the other hand, bring a quality of open-mindedness to the table, the courage to say that a particular party “emperor” has no clothes, that particular policies only reinforce pre-existing biases, and that policies and regulations and rules for the state or the nation should reflect the values of the greatest number of people, and not simply what party bosses want.
I encourage all voters, of all political persuasions, to support LD 211 as a common-sense measure to open democratic political participation to more Mainers.