AUGUSTA — Leading Democratic and Republican state senators said Monday that turnout at the state’s major party caucuses over the weekend was so well attended it shows Maine should become a primary state — with voters from both parties casting their ballots on a single day.

The switch would require the state to fund an additional statewide election day every four years, but supporters say it would allow Maine voters a stronger voice on the national stage.

Maine Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, introduced the legislation Monday during a news conference with State House reporters. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, soon after endorsed the idea. 

A day earlier, Alfond told Portland Democratic caucusgoers he would ask for the change. Since then, Alfond said his email inbox has been flooded with messages of support.

“On paper, the caucus system sounds really good,” Alfond said, “and I’m sure there are so many intangible things that happen — seeing people, being able to hear from all the candidates. There are all kinds of really good aspects of having a caucus.”

But Alfond said there were also some not-so-good aspects, including the fact that hundreds of voters may have been turned away and not allowed to participate in the process last weekend.


“The unprecedented turnout in 2016 shows that Mainers want to be voting, they want to be involved and that really bodes well for our state,” Alfond said.

He said it troubled him, however, that many voters were not allowed in or were frustrated enough by long waiting lines that they decided to leave.

Coupled with the time-consuming nature of the process — in some cases, up to three hours — and the discomfort of large groups of people squeezing into small caucus locations, Alfond said he and others believe there has to be a better way.

“All of these (factors) are troubling because they are making it harder for people to access their vote, and we should have a discussion about that,” he said.

His alternative is a primary system in Maine limited to voters registered in one of the state’s three established political parties: Republican, Democratic and Green Independents.

It wouldn’t be the first time Maine lawmakers have tried to switch from a party caucusing system to a statewide primary. Maine had presidential primaries in 1996 and 2000. But the law that created them was repealed in 2003. An effort in 2012 to bring back the primary was defeated in the Legislature.


Past efforts have usually been defeated by the cost.

Thibodeau said that regardless of whether the Legislature can advance legislation in 2016, it is still important to get the conversation started. He said several questions would have to be answered, including whether Maine should allow all voters to participate in a primary — known as an open primary — or whether the state should only allow enrolled party members to vote.

Thibodeau agreed a primary is worth the cost, given the long lines and the waiting that both Democrats and Republicans endured this past weekend.

“It’s a wonderful thing that so many people want to participate in the choosing of a president,” Thibodeau said in a phone interview Monday. “So we all ought to be happy about that — but now how do we make sure that people who want to participate have that opportunity?”

Thibodeau said Alfond is right in offering the bill, which is similar to one offered by former Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, several years ago. The cost of Raye’s proposal was estimated at $1 million per primary. It would be run by the Secretary of State’s Office, as all statewide general elections are.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, offered his support for exploring the idea of a presidential primary in Maine.


“I’m willing to co-sponsor Sen. Alfond’s bill because I believe we need to have a conversation about how to get more people involved in the process of nominating our presidential candidates,” Fredette said in a prepared statement. “Making Maine a primary state could be a way to accomplish that goal.”

Alfond said he welcomed the support from his Republican colleagues on the legislation and was hopeful lawmakers would agree to move the bill forward for 2016 while the issue was fresh in their minds.

He also said the potential for voters to be be disenfranchised by the current process made the matter an emergency in his mind and he hoped other legislative leaders would agree, allowing consideration of the proposal immediately. This is the second year of Maine’s two-year legislative session, which is dedicated solely to emergency legislation.

“Let’s do it now — let’s make the commitment now to Maine voters and Maine people,” Alfond said. “When you turn people away from the voting booth, that’s an emergency. When you get people shut off from doing their civic duty, that’s an emergency.”

For context, the Maine Republican Party said 18,600 people voted in Saturday’s caucus. That represents less than 7 percent of the 263,735 registered Republicans in Maine as of September 2015.

The Maine Democratic Party said more than 48,000 people participated in Sunday’s caucuses. That represents slightly more than 15 percent of the 307,881 registered Democrats in Maine as of September 2015, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Introduction of the proposed legislation will first need to be approved by legislative leadership, and would then be referred to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee for public hearings in the days ahead.

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