For a better ballot

Mainers traditionally have been high-ratio participants in local and national elections. Maybe it’s our small town roots and the ritual of annual town meetings. Maybe its plain civic pride — pride in citizenship and an embrace of our responsibility to participate in one of our most hallowed rights under the Constitution.

A tri-partisan group of Maine legislators is looking to assure that we revere this privilege by introducing an effort to open primary voting in Maine to all citizens, regardless of party affiliation. Open Primaries Maine is a committee of independent, Democrat and Republican legislators.

Maine is one of 14 states that prohibit unenrolled voters from casting ballots in primary elections. Only 15 states allow full and open primary elections permitting voters to cross party lines regardless of affiliation.

This is a gross injustice. Unenrolled voters — nonpartisan voters and independents — at 37 percent of registered voters in Maine comprise the largest “party” of voters in the state. Democrats make up 32 percent of registered voters, Republicans account for 27 percent and other, smaller party affiliations fill the gap.

If that 37 percent plurality were allowed to participate in primaries, those voters would be all the more likely to participate in the general elections.

The Open Primaries Maine advocates state that 80 percent of Maine voters support open primaries. Shouldn’t we be eager to increase access to voting rather than leaving over one-third of registered voters on the sidelines each primary election?

Speaking of sidelines, this Sunday, over 100 million Americans will be caught up in Super Bowl Sunday, a sporting contest that has become part of our wintertime entertainment, especially for New Englanders. What if we cultivated a tradition of election fervor?

The path chosen by Open Primaries Maine will not be an easy one. Opponents will come forward. Some will challenge the idea on constitutional grounds, contending open primaries violates their freedom of association because it would force them to allow “outsiders” to select their candidates. We don’t see that objection passing the straight-face test. For one thing, political parties don’t come up in the Constitution. But the Constitution is all about voting rights.

Open Primaries Maine means voting rights for all. Let’s stop nibbling around the edges of protecting our voting rights by encouraging participation. The present system, with its obnoxious and discriminatory exclusion of the largest voting cohort, has got to go.

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