In the last two weeks the Maine Legislature has attempted to process over 1,000 bills. There is always an end-of-session pile-up, but not like the likes of this. Thanks to the pandemic the legislative year was “end-loaded.” Committees met electronically, the chambers rarely convened and bills flowed through in a trickle. Now, with the anticipated deadline nearing and the Legislature back in the Statehouse, that trickle has turned into a torrent.
One bill stands out as a major achievement. LD 231, An Act to Establish Open Primaries, has been passed by wide bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate. The House vote was 92-52, including support from 14 Republicans and all four independents. (Six House members were absent, five Republicans and one Democrat). In the Senate the vote was 27-7, with six Republicans voting with the majority. Those are laudable numbers given the historic importance of this bill.
The primary system was established in state law in 1911. The first attempt to open the primaries to all voters came 64 years later, in 1975. In the ensuing 46 years there have been 13 sessions in which open primary legislation was submitted, including in every one of the last five sessions. Finally, the bill’s time has come.
Though independents, on the outside looking in when it comes to primary elections, may think open primaries are a no-brainer, it was not an easy vote for many partisans in either party. In a political climate where the self-interest of the parties is first and foremost in every decision, party members took a deep breath and followed the lead of Maine voters who favored open primaries by 80 percent.
Do not underestimate what it took for those supporters of open primaries to step forward. Senate Democrat and prime sponsor Chloe Maxmin was joined by Senate Republican Matthew Pouliot, the assistant minority leader. This was a critical signal to their parties that this was not going to be yet another bill that divided along party lines.
The primaries are a party function through which they select their candidates for general elections. Back in the day it was an improvement over when the parties met out of the public eye and party power brokers designated their candidates. But that fairer and more open process has been eroded by gerrymandering, creating electoral districts that favor one party or the other.
The elements of the electoral process have aligned to the point where one study of primary elections found that in 2016, 90 percent of U.S. House seats and over 70 percent of U.S. Senate seats were “safe,” or noncompetitive. When the primary elections are done, unenrolled voters or those in smaller parties are left with the choices presented by the major parties, almost always candidates who lean toward the ideological edges.
The barriers to entry for non-party candidates are legion, which is why there are never many of them. Alternative candidates lack name recognition, organizational resources, funding and the all-important access to the main stage. Campaign events are no longer controlled by impartial electoral commissions but by the parties, or the parties have veto power over the rules and who is invited to participate. Sometimes only the major party candidates are invited, at other times there is a bar established such as whether a candidate is polling at a certain percentage.
The trouble is non-party candidates have a hard time reaching that bar if they are excluded from major events such as early debates. It is a downward spiral of limited exposure leading to limited resources and limited resources meaning limited opportunities to get before the public. No one wants to yield precious debate time to a candidate like Vermin Love Supreme, who wears a boot on his head and campaigns on a platform of requiring Americans to brush their teeth. But there are credible candidates, relative unknowns, who deserve a chance to elevate their public profile before we rule them out.
There are ways to rectify this, but open primaries and ranked choice voting are the front-runners of what are considered essential reforms in the electoral process. Maine was an early leader in ranked choice voting but one of just 14 states with closed primaries. Not anymore.
Opening the primaries means the one-third of Maine voters who are not registered in a party will have reason to take an interest. A broader electoral base means party candidates will have to appeal to voters with a wider range of policy preferences, not just the party base. Open primaries have also been shown to increase voter turnout.
The effort was long overdue. Hancock County supporters included Sens. Louie Luchini and Kimberley Rosen and Reps. Kathy Downes, Nicole Grohoski, Genevieve McDonald, Sarah Pebworth and Lynne Williams. Well done, you.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.