AUGUSTA – Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee got their first look at a bill that would move Maine back to a statewide presidential primary vote.

The bill, LD 1673, sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, has received broad bipartisan support in its tentative form, including from Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

The bill is the result of overcrowded March caucuses for Maine Republicans and Democrats who saw record numbers of voters wanting to participate. And while the parties differed in how they went about selecting presidential preferences, they seem to agree a change is necessary.

Democratic voters in some towns, including Portland, experienced long waits to get into their caucus locations, while others were turned away. Republicans who held ballot voting at 21 locations across Maine saw many voters complaining about having to drive long distances to participate in the system.

Instead, voters should be able to vote for a primary candidate where they usually vote for an election, but that change could cost taxpayers a $1 million or more.

“Neither the caucus or primary system is perfect,” Alfond told the committee. “I know there are some that say we should keep the caucuses and just try to do better next time. But just because a caucus can work well doesn’t mean it’s a system to engage all voters. The caucus system excludes many that otherwise would vote.”

Alfond said his bill would see Maine hold a statewide presidential primary vote, but for only those who are enrolled in one of the two major parties. He said voters who wanted to participate could enroll in a party the day of the primary, even though at least 11 other states hold so-called “open primaries” so all registered voters can participate.

During a conversation before the committee testimony, Alfond said all taxpayers would foot the bill for the primary regardless of their party affiliation, including the estimated 41 percent of registered voters in Maine who are not enrolled in either party.  

“I don’t see why any unenrolled voter is disenfranchised or is paying for something they can’t participate in,” Alfond said. “They just have to decide to enroll in a party.”

But other lawmakers, including Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said he didn’t believe all taxpayers should be footing the bill for party activities. Brakey said he believed if the parties wanted to go to a statewide primary vote, they should find a way to pay for it.  

Brakey told committee members the other option would be to allow the parties to decide for themselves what type of system they want to use to select a presidential candidate every four years.

“If the Republican or Democratic party decides to do a caucus or a primary, just require them to pay the costs for it and then they can set the rules for that,” Brakey said.

Lewiston City Clerk Kathy Montejo, the chairperson for the Maine Town and City Clerks’ Association Legislative Policy Committee, said the association was taking a neutral stance on the bill but did want to urge the Legislature to take a few things into consideration.

In written testimony, Montejo said clerks that support the change had concerns from voters regarding the logistical operations of the recent caucuses. Everything from limited parking to inadequate accessibility for physically disabled voters came up. Returning to a primary vote at regular polling places during regular hours would also eliminate voter confusion, according to Montejo’s testimony.

Montejo said clerks who were opposed to going back to a statewide presidential primary vote, especially in March, said it’s a busy time for clerks who are also processing other election petitions. 

The clerks’ association also detailed issues of more municipal costs for a primary vote held on a Saturday, which would likely result in more overtime costs for city or even public school employees because schools are often used as polling places in Maine. 

The clerks were also urging lawmakers to delay enacting the bill until the Maine Secretary of State could survey all the state’s municipalities to determine more accurately what a primary election would cost.

In Lewiston, Montejo said there were about 7,000 unenrolled voters compared to about 9,000 Democrats and 4,000 Republicans.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap estimated the cost statewide could range from between $1 million to over $2 million depending on when the election was held. 

State Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, told lawmakers on the committee he was co-sponsoring the bill with Alfond because many voters in rural Maine, including those he represents in Washington County, were unable to participate in the recent March caucuses.

“Every Maine voter who takes the time to enroll in a political party should have the opportunity to cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice,” Tuell said. “Every Maine voter should be able to cast said ballot at their regular polling place.”

He said that meant, “even in the comfort of their own home as an absentee ballot.” 

Both Dunlap and Montejo also noted that final details making a change could be delayed because Maine won’t face another presidential primary until 2020.

But Alfond said previous efforts to change back to a primary in 2012 resulted only in a study that never led to any change. 

“That study came back to the Legislature and we did nothing with the study and we just went through a very difficult caucus,” Alfond said. “So my fear is if we don’t fix this now, another senator will be before this committee four years from now asking for the same change, why not act today?”

LePage’s head legal counsel, Avery Day, also told the committee that the governor tentatively supported the change but his office also wanted to be advised of the details in the bill as they were developed.

He also cautioned against turning the legislation into a study.

“He’s supportive of the concept,” Day said. “I would also recommend if you want to go forward with it, legislation would be more favorably received than a study.”

The committee will take votes on the bill in the days ahead as the Legislature continues to work toward an April 20 adjournment date.

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