AUGUSTA — State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said Wednesday that he wants Maine to allow its large number of unenrolled voters to participate in party primary elections.

Katz, considered a moderate Republican, said his bill, LD 744, would allow registered voters not enrolled in either party to cast a ballot for either a Republican or a Democrat in primary elections. The measure does not allow voters who are registered with parties to cross party lines to vote.

Only two states, Massachusetts and Arizona, have systems similar to the one Katz is proposing.

During his presentation of the bill before the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, Katz likened Maine’s election laws to those in Hong Kong, where candidates for office are first selected by China’s communist government. Katz said headlines heralding the Hong Kong elections six months ago suggested they were free.

“Mainland China permits free elections in Hong Kong, but the mainland government selects the candidates from which Hong Kong voters are permitted to choose,” Katz told the committee. “Some democracy. And yet, when you think about it, we allow something not all that different to happen here in Maine.”

He said Maine’s primary process effectively left a large swath of voters out of the process. For example, he pointed to the June primary election for Maine’s 2nd District U.S. congressional seat in 2014.

“As I recall, Election Day was sunny and warm,” Katz said. “And yet, voter turnout can only be described as pathetic.” He said that of the 488,000 registered voters in the district, only 67,000, or 14 percent, took part in the election.

He said his bill was an effort to bring the state’s 368,000 unenrolled voters into the process.

“Let’s face it, there is a large bloc of people out there who do not have a great deal of confidence in either political party and just do not want an R or a D next to their name,” Katz said. “That is really unfortunate, and perhaps not fair, but we must face that that is a reality.”

Regina Coppens of Belgrade, a representative for the League of Women Voters of Maine, said about 37 percent of Maine voters are not members of either party. She said proponents of allowing unenrolled voters to participate in primary elections might not achieve the voter participation they are hoping for if other states could serve as examples.

“Voting by independents in states such as Arizona that allow unenrolled voters to vote in primaries is only about 10 percent,” Coppens said. “So the assertion that open primaries increase voter participation in the primaries is open to debate.”

Coppens said the league was neither for nor against the bill. She said members “heartily endorses this aspiration (of greater voter turnout), but we have found little evidence to support the hope that open primaries will increase voter participation.”

Julie Flynn, Maine’s deputy secretary of state who oversees elections, said her agency was neither for nor against Katz’s proposal but said it would likely cost the state more to conduct elections if enacted because it would, at a minimum, require the state to print 110,000 more ballots for primary elections. Flynn fixed that price tag at $168,000.

She urged the committee to amend some of the language in the bill so the Secretary of State’s office could develop the technical procedures necessary to make the changes a reality, if lawmakers decided to go that route.

Katz’s bill will face additional scrutiny before the committee and the entire Legislature in the days ahead.

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