Disappointingly small voter turnout highlights need for open primaries



The political parties have now presented us with our choices for the November election. It is not a gubernatorial election year; we must wait another two years for that. We will be electing congressional representatives to the House (neither of Maine’s U.S. senators is up for election this year), and we will be electing an entire state legislature.

The only contested primary for the Legislature in Hancock County was in Senate District 7, the seat currently held by Ellsworth Republican Brian Langley. Two challengers emerged on the Democrats’ side. One was previous four-term Rep. Ted Koffman of Bar Harbor, the other a political newbie from Surry, Moira O’Neill. The district opted for the fresh face, sending Ms. O’Neill on to the general election by a solid margin.

The big story of the election was voter turnout. Not to put too fine a point on it, it stank. Most voters turned their backs on the primary, with fewer than one in five voters showing up to determine the candidates for November. In some places it was closer to one in ten. Horrifying.

At a time when the presidential election is receiving unprecedented attention, we proved once again that, despite all the hubbub, frankly, my dear, we don’t give a damn. Maine has above-average turnout in general elections, but by then our options have been limited by the primaries.

Of course, if you are an unenrolled (independent) voter, you have an excuse for not voting. The primary election is not for you. Despite numbering over a third of all registered voters in Maine, independents are not permitted to vote in the primaries. They must simply accept the candidates put before them by a tiny fraction of party voters.

It is not that way in all states. Some have “open primaries” where anyone may select the ballot of their choice and participate in the primary. The parties believe this opens the door to nefarious “opposition” voting. Others believe it results in primary candidates who trend toward the center rather than toward party extremes, selecting general election candidates who are more broadly supported rather than putting up two odious ideologues who will lead incendiary, polarizing campaigns.

California has gone even further. In 2010 the Top Two Primaries Act was passed. All candidates who qualify are presented to all voters on a single primary ballot. The two who receive the greatest number of votes, be they two D’s, two R’s, one of each or any other combination of contestants, go on to the general election.

This means a two-person race in a general election, eliminating much of the weirdness that happens in the kind of statewide races Maine has seen in the past several decades where three, four, or even five candidates have competed. This means a candidate with l less — sometimes far less — than 50 percent of the vote will win, and must attempt to govern without broad support among the electorate. Not mentioning any names.

As for all the other Hancock County legislative races, all incumbents are eligible for re-election and all are running. Four are Republicans, four are Democrats. None had primary challengers; all have general election competition.

One contest that might be fun to watch is in House District 137, where Democrat Laurie Fogelman is challenging incumbent Republican Larry Lockman. Lockman is a take-no-prisoners conservative from Amherst who has been criticized for statements about rape, abortion and gays which, though dated, were extreme enough to generate calls for his resignation.

Fogelman, a resident of Franklin, was the longtime director of the Next Step Domestic Violence Project whose mission is to “end the cycle of domestic violence through education and social change.” She retired in December of 2011 with a goal to “relax and enjoy life.” Now she is ready to take on another form of public service.

Also facing the voters in November are four public referendum questions. The question on universal background checks for gun purchases has gotten heightened attention due to the disastrous mass shooting in Orlando last week.

Some are trying to cast this as another proposal backed and funded by big money forces from away, but the truth is that plenty of Mainers are passionate about the subject. Sadly, many have good reason, having been touched by gun violence in their own lives.

Despite repeated failures by Congress to make any progress toward enhanced gun safety, Orlando seems to have made a dent on the consciousness of Washington, D.C. Do not think that what passes for action in our nation’s capitol is anything the average citizen would see as progress.

The “no fly” list, developed by the Terrorist Screening Center, names individuals deemed unsuitable to board an airplane. But buy a gun? By all means! Congress might put a stop to that. What have they been waiting for?

Maine Sen. Susan Collins is working to craft legislation to address this, legislation that might be narrow enough, not to mention stunningly obvious enough, to persuade a sufficient number of members of both parties to sign on. We shall see. Win or lose, she is once again showing the rest of Congress how it should be done.

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