Blogging has been such a learning experience. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to talk to interesting people and to develop better citizenship skills. Like, I’ve learned that I should have been reading the legislation behind referendum questions before voting on the simplistic language presented to voters.
Now I’m learning — not learning so much learning as internalizing for the first time — that primaries in Maine are taxpayer-, rather than party-funded. Which means all taxpayers contribute to the primary process, but not all are allowed to participate in them.
Maine’s primaries are closed, which means only voters registered with a political party can vote in them. The Republican and Democratic parties take taxpayer funds to finance the process that singles out candidates for general campaigns — AND — they decide who can and can’t participate.
The Maine 128th Legislature has a chance to change it. The 127th missed the same opportunity, but here’s hoping our new legislature is willing listening with open ears. Previous champion of the cause, Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, has been joined by Rep. Owen Casas of Rockport and LD 78 sponsor Rep. Kent Ackley of Monmouth.
Katz is a Republican, Casas and Ackley are independents, and all support LD 78, a proposal to make Maine an open primary state.
Ackley refers to himself as a “Common Sense Independent,” and he understands “why parties are resistant” to the idea of open primaries. Ackley appreciates that political strategizing is smoother with knowns rather than unknowns.
Opening primaries to the roughly 36 percent of registered voters who don’t align with a party is like throwing a big handful of an unknown spice into a tried and true recipe. Who knows how it will go?
As Ackley put it, “it’s injecting a massive unknown that would throw their models off.” He’s hoping his party-affiliated colleagues are ready to embrace that challenge by focusing on our nation’s long history of expanding access to the electoral process. Ackley listed some of the groups that have gained the right to vote since our nation’s inception as evidence of this core value.
Ackley added that the next evolution in enfranchisement might be making sure all voters have access to all stages of the process.
Co-sponsor Rep. Owen Casas agrees. Casas also hopes open primaries might help rein in some of the extremism happening on both sides of the aisle. Like Ackley, he’s a freshman legislator learning the ropes, and he’s been advised LD 78 will need senatorial support beyond Senator Katz.
Casas anticipates being asked why un-enrolled voters can’t just register with a party in time for primaries, then un-enroll three months later as allowed by law. Besides acknowledging the fact that some un-enrolled voters have deep reasons for not aligning with either party, Casas hopes to turn the question around.
If party stalwarts think it’s so easy for un-enrolled voters to do that, why not do the truly easiest thing and just let them vote in primaries anyway? Is making voters act against their principles and go through the extra steps of enrolling and un-enrolling again really easier than it is to just let them vote?
Good question. Ackley believes that if he explained the principles behind the proposal to ten voters, eight would agree. A reader poll in the BDN in 2015 suggests he might not be far off.
Ackley and Casas believe citizenship would support this bill, and that the primary (no pun intended) opposition will come from party leadership. Still they’re hopeful (as am I) for the potential of the 128th.
Casas and Ackley are shooting for unanimous committee support when the proposal gets heard by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Tuesday afternoon. At the absolute least, they hope to garner more support than previous attempts, along with a minority report should a majority not support it.
Both representatives speak with a profound respect and reverence for country, for service to country, and for their responsibility for being a part of what makes government and our representative democracy better. While from different generations, both men speak with a level of conviction regarding their values and their vision that makes me think of a lighthouse warning seafarers about the waters they’re sailing.
I hope the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee and their colleagues in the House and Senate are willing to see the light.
Rep. Casas sent me talking points for LD 78, and I will include some here. For the sake of brevity, I will include the rest in a follow-up post:
- 70% of Maine elections are decided in the primaries. Nearly 4 out of 10 eligible voters are independents, and are thus prohibited from participating in these elections.
- 50% of millennials identify as independents and don’t want to join a political party. Parties can either choose to alienate this entire generation of voters, or they can open primaries to make democracy stronger and the parties relevant for a new generation of Americans (PEW, March 2014).
- 49% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are independent voters. These men and women fought for our freedom, but are denied the freedom to vote in all of Maine’s elections (IAVA Annual Member Survey, 2014).
- 89% of Mainers believe that state government doesn’t work for them. Closed primaries prevent the largest group of voters in Maine from participating in elections that help to determine who leads our state. They only exacerbate the problem. (Schoen, September 2016).