AUGUSTA — The Legislature has sent Gov. Paul LePage a bill that would move Maine back to a statewide presidential primary in 2020.

It’s a move LePage has said he supports, but at least a handful of state lawmakers are questioning whether all taxpayers should have to foot the $1 million to $2 million bill for a March election that only benefits the state’s major parties.

LePage, who had yet to act on the bill, said Wednesday he favors a system that would allow all registered voters to participate.

“If you’re an American citizen, you should have the right to vote,” LePage said.

It’s a sentiment shared by some lawmakers who opposed the switch to a primary system geared only toward registered Republicans and Democrats.

During a House floor debate on the measure, which passed the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon, Rep. James Campbell, an independent from Newfield, said he was voting against the measure because the primary would exclude the large portion of Maine voters who are not enrolled in either party.

Campbell said if the intent were to only allow those who were enrolled in the parties to participate, he opposed the move. He noted that a number of other states, including Maine’s closest neighbor, New Hampshire, hold so-called “open primaries” that allow all registered voters to select from any of the candidates seeking the highest office in the country.

“We call this a democracy?” Campbell asked. “If I can’t vote in the primary and we can’t have a true democracy, why should I worry about whether we pass it or don’t pass it.”

Campbell, 83, has served as both a Republican and a Democrat in the Legislature. He said later he was disgusted with the notion that Maine’s unenrolled voters would be forced to enroll in a party if they wanted to have a say in who the presidential candidate should be.

According to records on file with the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, 37 percent of Maine’s 978,146 voters are not enrolled in political parties. Thirty-one percent are enrolled as Democrats, 27 percent are Republicans and 4 percent are enrolled in the Green Party.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the sponsor of the primary legislation, has said he believes closed primaries are appropriate because the largest majority of Maine voters, when you combine Democrats and Republicans, are enrolled in a party.

Alfond has also said that any registered voter can decide to enroll in a party if they want to vote in a primary.

Alfond offered the bill after Republicans and Democrats complained about their parties’ respective caucus procedures in March when voters swamped limited party-run polling places.

Democratic voters in some towns, including Alfond’s 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.

Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, said she too voted against the primary bill because it was asking unenrolled voters to foot the cost of a bill that was aimed mainly at solving problems for the parties.

Dillingham said Democrats could have offered more caucus locations to reduce the waiting or inaccessibility their voters experienced in March.

“I believe that these costs for the primaries should be borne by the parties and not by the taxpayers of the state, especially as we are a closed primary state,” Dillingham said.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said he too had concerns about pushing the cost of party primaries onto all taxpayers. On Tuesday, Brakey said he preferred keeping the caucus system, which is paid for by the parties in place. He said the second option was to have primaries but to require the parties to pay for them.

Brakey said that if all taxpayers are going to pay for the parties’ primaries, those primaries should be open to all voters.

“I really don’t see how it’s fair,” Brakey said. “It would be like I want to throw a party and I want you to pay for it, but you’re not invited to attend.”

As it stands, the bill sets in place presidential primary election every four years in March to be run by the Maine secretary of state, who oversees all general elections in the state. But the legislation leaves up to the next Legislature to decide details on how to pay for it and on who would be allowed to participate.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, estimated the cost of running a statewide primary at between $1 million and $2 million. He said that estimate did not include the costs local municipalities would face to host the elections, which are overseen locally by city and town clerks.

Alfond has said his intent is to hold closed primaries, but it remains unclear whether LePage will sign the bill, allow it to become law without his signature or veto the bill.

In a statement issued after the Senate’s unanimous non-roll-call vote to endorse the bill Tuesday, Alfond said he was grateful for the bipartisan support of his legislation.

“No resident of our state should be left out because of our caucus system,” Alfond said in the prepared statement. “The Legislature has heard Mainers loud and clear, and they want a return to the primary system.”

The House approved the bill on a vote of 128-22.

A number of other lawmakers who spoke against the switch said the state’s current caucus system was the best way to engage voters and allowed face-to-face conversations that were not only driven by media sound bites or political marketing campaigns.

LePage has 10 days to make a decision on the bill.

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“I really don’t see how it’s fair. It would be like I want to throw a party and I want you to pay for it but you’re not invited to attend.”

– Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn

 

“We call this a democracy? If I can’t vote in the primary and we can’t have a true democracy why should I worry about whether we pass it or don’t pass it?”

– Rep. James Campbell, I-Newfield

 

“I believe that these costs for the primaries should be borne by the parties and not by the taxpayers of the state, especially as we are a closed primary state.” 

–Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford

 


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