Maine has a strong tradition of high voter participation in all levels of elections. Perhaps our participatory town hall style of government, perhaps our small town responsibility as free citizens, Mainers generally are engaged in local, state and national elections.
An exception is our primaries. Maine employs a ‘closed primary’ process allowing only members of the candidates’ party to choose who will represent that party in a general election. Currently, 37% of Mainers—those individuals labeled as ‘unenrolled’—are not able to vote in a primary thus have no voice in selecting a final candidate for local statewide or national office. This group of ‘unenrolled’ citizens is the largest voting bloc in the State of Maine, surpassing Democrats, 32%, and Republicans, 27%, according to year-end 2016 statistics.
Proponents of creating an ‘open primary’ system cite voter frustration and hyper-partisanship as sound reasons to move away from the current ‘closed primary’ process. A post-election 2016 survey by Mainers for Open Elections reports that 81% of voters feel that Congressional representatives do “what’s best for the party” rather than for the state’s citizens. They further report that 73% of voters believe taxpayer funded primaries should be open to all voters.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of association. Political parties are not listed among the Constitution’s protections. But the voting rights of the individual are clearly guaranteed.
Preventing a plurality of voters from participating in the primary phase of the election process intentionally restricts the voice of unenrolled voters. Major party response: join us, you then can vote. But one should not be forced to abandon one’s principles in order to participate in the voting process.
Beyond the issue of fairness, a major party might be pleasantly surprised by the results, should they have the opportunity to attract voters not already committed to the other. Also each party’s primary candidates should welcome the chance to chance to expand their primary campaign to more than double the usual audience. A sizable win would provide a major leg up in the general election campaign.
Open primary opponents cite the opportunity for organized manipulation where the opposing party might promote unenrolled voters to enroll and vote for the weakest of the targeted party’s candidates. Fortunately, such an effort would be less than successful, once publicized.
One additional advantage-both major parties might discover that moderate, rather than extreme, candidates are more successful in the general election.
Providing primary voting rights to the state’s “largest” party will enhance – not destroy – the viability and clarity of Maine’s election process. And it’s the fair thing to do.