For the first time in more than three decades, Democrats have the largest bloc of registered voters in Maine, with more than 40,000 new party members enrolled since the last presidential election cycle in 2016.

Over the same four-year period, Republicans have added fewer than 6,000 new members, according to voter registration data from the Secretary of State’s Office.

That gives Democrats more than a 90,000-vote advantage – the largest in the last five presidential election cycles – over their conservative rivals.

Significantly, Democrats now also outnumber unenrolled voters, who have long dominated registrations in a state known for its independent-minded citizens.

The shift occurred in conjunction with the March presidential primary, which featured would-be Democratic challengers to President Trump, and it could be a boon to Democrats in the July 14 primary and the general election in November.

The primary, delayed from June by Gov. Janet Mills to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 will be the first test of the state’s voting system since the onset of the pandemic.

In a voter registration update published by the Maine Secretary of State’s Office after the March primary, Democratic enrollment stood at 381,446, or 36 percent of the state’s 1.05 million registered voters. Republicans had 291,210 voters, or 27.5 percent, and 344,108 voters, or 32.5 percent, were unenrolled. There were also 42,242 registered Greens.

Although they trail Democrats significantly, Maine Republican enrollments are still the largest they’ve been since 1990, and the party has eclipsed its last peak of 287,452 voters in 2004.

Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas said she was unconcerned about the registration gap between her party and the Democrats. She said she believes many of the new Democratic voters enrolled only to participate in the March primary, and they may not even show up in November.

“And we don’t know that those folks who registered as Democrats were only doing it to be able to vote,” Kouzounas said. She said many who registered may not even show up to vote come November.

Most municipal offices, where residents typically register to vote, were closed shortly after the March primary because of the coronavirus pandemic but have started to reopen, which could allow those motivated to register as a Republican to do so. The state will update its voter registration numbers after the July primary, and Kouzounas said she thinks there will be a shift upward for Republicans then and after the November general election.

She said voter registration numbers don’t reveal the depth of support for Trump, who finished 22,000 votes behind Hillary Clinton in Maine in 2016 but still captured one electoral vote by defeating Clinton in the 2nd Congressional District. Kouzounas also said she sees a lot of frustration and anger in Maine, especially among small business owners, over Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ response to COVID-19, and that will be a factor in November.

“I’m not necessarily sure the data that’s out there is going to tell you the direction of how this election is going to go,” she said. “I’m very optimistic.”

Academics who study elections and voter behavior said voters from both parties are more engaged and attentive than ever – much of it driven by government’s response to the pandemic, support or opposition to Trump, and new racial justice activism that has swept the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody in Minnesota in May.

Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who also manages the United States Election Project, an online clearing house featuring election statistics, electoral law, research reports and other information on the U.S. electoral system, said the jump in Democratic registrations in Maine can be partially attributed to a lot of interest in the March primary.

“A competitive primary election can be a very strong political stimuli,” McDonald said. He said Republicans have also been voting in record numbers for Trump in state primaries, even in primaries where he had no formal opposition. “He’s beating (President George W.) Bush in 2004 by a lot,” McDonald said. “So, there’s a lot of people who just want to voice their solidarity and support for Trump by voting for him.”

But why, over the long term, Democrats have now surpassed unenrolled voters in Maine may be another story, McDonald said.

“I think it has something to do with the fact that we are becoming more polarized as a country, and so people want to express their opinion and be part of one of the two political parties,” he said.

The surge in Democratic voter registrations in Maine runs counter to trends in other states where new voter registrations have plummeted – largely because of pandemic restrictions and closures – for both Republicans and Democrats compared to the run-up to the 2016 election, according to a June report by the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research.

The center looked at new voter registration data in 13 states, including California, Florida and Texas – states with large populations and large numbers of voters – and found that new voter registrations through January of 2020 exceeded those from the same time period in 2016. But the study found that starting in March new registrations plunged in 11 of the 13 states and all 13 showed decreases from the same period in 2016.

Ron Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said the spike in Democratic registrations is also a reflection of voter engagement.

“One possibility here is that people here feel that registering for the Democratic Party is more likely to deliver, either a particular outcome that they want, or a particular degree of insult,” Schmidt said.

He said David Truman, a political scientist from the 1950s and 1960s, coined the term “disturbance theory” to describe the type of voter reaction that seems to be occurring now. “He said most Americans don’t pay long-standing attention to politics – they react to things that disturb them,” Schmidt said. “And we could be seeing voters who are disturbed, maybe by the president, maybe by racism – maybe by everything that is 2020 – and they’ve made the resolution that the best way to resolve everything is within the Democratic Party itself.”

Maine’s latest registration data also does not align with the most recent biweekly poll on U.S. party affiliation done by Gallup, a global analytics and polling company. Gallup’s May 28 to June 4 survey of U.S. voters found that 31 percent of U.S. voters considered themselves Democrats, 25 percent Republican and 40 percent independent.

Affiliation breakdown in Maine usually mirrors national numbers fairly closely, so the dramatic shift to the left over a relatively short period, coupled with a steady longer-term decline in unenrolled voters, is probably good news for Democrats, said Michael Franz, a government professor at Bowdoin College, who also studies political campaigns and campaign financing.

Franz said some of the Democratic gains could be chalked up to a competitive Democratic primary in March, but the trend of a steady uptick in enrollment for the party seems to have started in 2016 in Maine. Franz said the increase seems to be a direct response to Trump and surprisingly there wasn’t a similar response to Maine’s outspoken and often controversial Republican former Gov. Paul LePage. “I would have thought we would have seen a LePage effect,” Franz said. “But that doesn’t appear to have happened the way we seem to be seeing a Trump effect here.

“All told, with caveats, this is evidence that the Democrats have seen some positive developments in the state and suggest that maybe their future is bright,” Franz said. “This is a good thing for them.”

Van Afes of Portland fills out his ballot Tuesday at Merrill Auditorium, where the city of Portland is holding in-person absentee voting and voter registration in advance of the July 14 primaries. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Marjorie Little, 79, of Portland is one of those voters who switched parties. Little, a longtime Lubec resident before moving to Portland, said she was a lifelong Republican but was deeply disappointed in the direction her former party was heading, so she joined the Democratic Party in September 2019.

“They are trying to bring this country together again and get us on the right track,” Little said. “So I’m voting for Democrats.”

Laurie Pocher, 56, of Ogunquit, another former Republican, said she registered as an unenrolled voter when she moved to Maine from Boston, but in 2016 registered as a Democrat because she feels Republicans have become too divisive.

“There’s this atmosphere of divisiveness that I don’t ever remember before,” Pocher said. “For somebody to win, somebody else has to lose, and that kind of flies in the face of what I thought this country was all about.”

Maine Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathleen Marra said this year’s March presidential primary clearly boosted enrollments, but party officials had seen the Democratic ranks begin growing well before then.

She said voters were drawn to the party by its positions in support of Medicaid expansion for lower income Mainers, expanding paid family medical leave provisions and other progressive measures passed after Democrats took control of the Legislature in 2018.

In addition to their voter registration gains, Democrats have also far outpaced Republicans in requesting absentee ballots for the July 14 primary, another sign Democratic voters are highly engaged in 2020, Marra said. She said the party has done a good job in getting its message to voters.

“Now our job is to really capitalize on this moment,” Marra said. “We’ve got a vibrant grassroots organizing operation and we are talking to Maine voters, and they know we are going to work for them.”

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