Ellsworth State Sen. Louie Luchini has submitted a bill, LD 245, to establish presidential primaries in Maine. It’s a good idea, though not a new one. A bill to replace party caucuses with presidential primaries was approved by both houses of the Legislature three years ago and signed by Governor Paul LePage.
But that Legislature, in its wisdom, failed to appropriate funding and the law was automatically repealed. Unless money is voted this year, Maine will retain its outmoded caucus system for the 2020 elections. (The money at issue is about $900,000, according to a 2016 calculation by Secretary of State Mathew Dunlap.)
Caucuses and primaries are the two main ways candidates are selected for elective office. Caucuses have value beyond selecting nominations for presidential races. They are venues for decision-making on party issues, recruitment for campaigns and all-round solidarity. But turnout, relative to primaries, is low.
“An Act to Re-establish a Presidential Primary System in Maine” is certain to increase voter participation. Among those speaking favor of the bill at a recent hearing was Ann Luther of Trenton, representing the League of Women Voters of Maine.
“Perhaps the greatest consideration in our position on presidential primaries is simply that the number of Mainers who participate in caucuses is far smaller — even in the years where the caucus seems overwhelmed by large numbers of voters — than the number who participate in primaries,” Luther said. “Primaries offer a much broader gauge of public support, and draw a more representative electorate, than party caucuses.”
“Presidential primaries offer a more convenient and accessible voting experience,” said Luchini. That convenience and accessibility, he said, mean greater “voter participation, strengthening our democracy.”
LD 245, which faces action in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee as well as votes in the Maine House and Senate, would bring Maine into the fold of the majority of states. Party caucuses to nominate presidential candidates can be invigorating, if boisterous, exercises in direct democracy. But they are time-consuming and most convenient for those who can give over a good part of the day to politics. As a Portland Press Herald editorial noted, “It’s a system that rewards party insiders and discourages broad participation.”
Like the bill to open all primaries to unenrolled voters, allowing independents to participate without having to join a party, Luchini’s filing is another step in the direction of greater participation in elections. In an age of sometimes subtle, sometimes heavy-handed efforts to manipulate outcomes through gerrymandering and voter ID laws, LD 245 moves Maine closer to the ideal of democracy.