LEWISTON — Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor in Maine, was taking the opportunity Tuesday to call attention to state election laws he said were unfair and did not reflect a true democracy.

“We have let money and special interests corrupt our politics and steal our democracy right out from under us,” Cutler said in a prepared statement issued by his campaign staff. “We have gone from Lincoln’s ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ to a government of the parties, bought by the special interests, for the benefit of those few who have connections.”

Cutler said Maine’s system should be reformed to allowed unenrolled voters to vote for either Republican or Democratic candidates in the kind of open primary system allowed by about 20 other states.

He said voting reforms that would lead the state to so-called “ranked choice” voting would ensure any future statewide candidate would be selected by a majority of voters.

Cutler lost a 2010 bid for governor in a three-way race against incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic state Sen. Libby Mitchell. Cutler won 35.9 percent of the vote to LePage’s 37.6 percent; Mitchell won 18.8 percent.

Cutler is again in a three-way race for governor, with LePage and Maine’s 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat from East Millinocket.

On Tuesday, as Maine’s Republican and Democratic party faithful were heading to the polls to pick candidates for the U.S. Congress and a handful of other state offices, the largest swath of the state’s voters — those not enrolled in either party — were left voting only on local elections, ballot questions and local school budgets.

To vote in Tuesday’s primary, unenrolled voters, who often consider themselves “independents,” had to pick a party and register just before voting. Maine voting laws are similar to about 29 other states.

Of Maine’s 957,583 registered voters, 37 percent were unenrolled as of June 2; 31 percent were enrolled as Democrats and 27 percent as Republicans, according to Maine Secretary of State’s Office records.

Since 2010, Cutler has repeatedly called for voting reform, but state lawmakers, who are mostly party members, have resisted changing voting laws.

In a letter to Michaud and LePage in June 2013, Cutler urged them to join him in supporting changes to state election laws. 

“I believe that any person who legally qualifies for the ballot, either as an independent or a party candidate, has the right to run,” Cutler wrote in his June 19 message. “At the same time, given the importance of the office, Maine’s governor should be elected by a majority of the voters. I have supported, and will continue to support, run-off elections and ranked-choice voting as common-sense reforms to accomplish this objective.”

Ranked choice allows voters to mark candidates in order of preference rather than voting for a single candidate. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she wins. If no one gets a majority, the one with the fewest votes drops out and the remaining two face off.

Cutler had urged Michaud and LePage to support the changes so they could be in place for the 2014 elections. 

On Tuesday, Cutler continued to point out the unfairness of Maine’s election and campaign finance laws.

“Under current law, written by the parties of course, independent candidates have to collect twice as many signatures to get on the ballot and can only raise half as much money for their campaigns,” Cutler said.

LePage campaign spokesman Brent Littlefield dodged a direct answer to Cutler’s call for ranked-choice voting or open primaries, saying instead that Michaud and Cutler were fighting over an ever-decreasing pool of voters. 

“It seems to me that liberal politicians Michael Michaud and Eliot Cutler are fighting over a smaller group of voters who want to expand welfare, increase government and harm jobs,” Littlefield wrote in an email message. “Gov. LePage will stay focused on job creation while Michaud and Cutler court that increasingly small group of voters with these issues.”

Michaud’s staff did respond to Cutler’s 2013 letter but never heard back from Cutler on the issue, said Lizzy Reinholt, a spokeswoman for Michaud’s campaign.

Reinholt provided a copy of that message from Michaud staffer Peter Chandler, in which Chandler asks whether Cutler intended to have ranked-choice voting or instant-runoff voting for state office elections or only for the governor’s race.

The letter notes that Michaud would be willing to discuss legislation to change election laws in Maine but does not indicate whether he supported ranked-choice voting or open primaries.

Reinholt on Tuesday also dodged issuing a statement on open primaries or ranked-choice voting. Instead, Reinholt said Cutler was focusing on raising the issue of open primaries and election law reform because it called attention to his campaign.

“While Eliot Cutler is focusing on what’s good for him and his political campaign, Congressman Michaud is focused on bringing people together, creating jobs, making sure people have access to health care and raising the minimum wage,” Reinholt said. “This is just another media stunt from the Cutler campaign.”

Reinholt said Cutler never testified on bills that were before the Maine Legislature this year aimed at addressing his concerns.

“If he was serious about these reforms, he should have weighed in when the Legislature was considering many of them last year,” Reinholt said. “Instead, he was absent.”

None of the bills offered on election reform in 2014 were passed into law.

“Cutler’s repeated calls for ranked-choice voting and other schemes represent a cynical view of our democratic process that’s designed to ensure that only liberals like he and Michael Michaud get elected,” David Sorensen, spokesman for the Maine GOP, said in a prepared statement. “Maine’s voting traditions should not be bent and manipulated in order to satisfy Eliot Cutler’s obsession with stopping conservative reforms.”

Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said Cutler didn’t participate in any of the public debate on election reform in the Maine Legislature.

“I’d be more impressed with these proposals if I thought they were more than just campaign propaganda,” Grant said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday. “It has been nearly six full years since Eliot started running for governor, and to my knowledge he has never set foot in the State House to propose or support any of these reforms.”

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