Veterans and Legal Affairs should sell tickets at the door

Following a lead about a proposal to open Maine’s primaries to un-enrolled voters landed me back in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee room. I couldn’t help but enjoy and be enriched as a citizen by my last visit during hearings about the recreational marijuana moratorium.  

Prior to these last two experiences, it had been a while since I attended a legislative public committee hearing. Maybe the nature of these events has changed since or maybe it’s just the make-up of this particular committee in this particular legislature, but the VLA folks should get a larger venue and sell tickets at the door.

Stock image

Stock image

Or maybe bus students of all ages in for lessons in civics-in-action.

LD 78 and the idea of opening primaries in some way that involves un-enrolled voters might not be the easiest conversation for party loyalists on the committee to have. But they had it, and they had the uncomfortable conversation while being respectful of the issues at hand. I missed some of the earliest testimony, but roughly a dozen people testified in support of LD 78, one opposed, and two testified neither for nor against.

Different degrees of open primaries were discussed — from a nonpartisan primary in which any registered voter can choose which primary in which to participate, to two-tiered primaries in which the two candidates receiving the most votes go on to the general election regardless of party, to what is being proposed in LD 78 that would allow un-enrolled voters to choose which party’s primary in which to participate.

Bill sponsor Rep. Kent Ackley and co-sponsor Rep. Owen Casas brought out some big guns in support of their proposal, including Republicans Congressman David Emery and Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director/former state senator Peter Mills. Both former Republican primary gubernatorial candidates were articulate and hilarious (again with the selling tickets idea), and the committee seemed to welcome the informed opinions and the comic relief.

Congressman David Emery testifies before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Tuesday.  Photo by Trish Callahan

Congressman David Emery testifies before the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee Tuesday. Photo by Trish Callahan

Emery coyly suggested he might have had “ex-governor” on his resume had un-enrolled voters been allowed to participate in the primary in ’06, causing quite an outburst of laughter. Mills and Emery were generous and enlightened in their views about inclusivity rather than exclusivity, and testified that while not perfect, LD 78 was a step in that direction.

Both felt the proposal would ultimately strengthen the two parties. Emery called for legislators to think “stronger and broader rather than narrower and weaker.”

Mills said Barry Goldwater would tell party loyalist “to relax and get over their paranoia,” and went on to say Sen. Olympia Snowe also supported un-enrolled access to primaries.

Ackley’s testimony included similar thoughts:

The wider and deeper our democratic roots grow, the more faith Mainers will put in every branch of our government.  (Rep. Kent Ackley)

There were plenty of statistics flying around. It got me to thinking about what I’ve been taught about statistics by savvy mentors.  There’s a lewd metaphor that sums the lesson up in one horribly misogynistic sentence that is so wrong, but the point of the metaphor is:  some statistics are more susceptible to subjective value manipulation than others.

Meaning — some statistics can be used to represent two totally different views given their presentation. Like, one of the neutral statements had a statistic about places that had opened their primaries to un-enrolled voters. The average increase in participation was nine percent.

At nine percent, it would be completely fair to say, places that opened their primaries to the un-enrolled only showed a slight increase in participation. However, it would also be completely fair to say that Maine stands to double it’s primary participation should it open it’s primaries and see similar increases.

As Ackley testified, Maine had a 9.4 percent participation rate in the primary races in 2016. Double. How can double participation at that low a rate be a bad idea?

Then there are statistics that stand alone, no matter how you present them. Like a statistic I shared in my last post from Casas:  49% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are independent voters. The idea that almost half our veterans — the folks who signed the dotted line saying they’d lay their lives down for our country — are ineligible to vote in Maine’s primaries is troubling any way you look at it.

And it’s personal for Casas, a Marine veteran who served in arenas like Fallujah.

I wouldn’t want to disrespect service people by speculating why almost half are not party-affiliated, nor does it matter when it comes to their rights as voting citizens. They have their reasons, and I have mine. Party loyalists have their reasons for party loyalty, too.

All of us with all of our reasons deserve to participate in the entire taxpayer-funded electoral process.

The remainder of the talking points Casas and Ackley shared with me:

  • Representative democracy works better when more citizens vote. Voter participation in primary elections is at all time lows. We should be working to encourage more participation in elections, not working to keep citizens who want to participate from doing so.
  • Primary elections are paid for with taxpayer funds. Taxpayer dollars should not be spent to allow private associations to conduct exclusionary elections. Unenrolled voters must be allowed to participate in primaries if taxpayer dollars are spent to conduct them.
  • Maine government works best when its leaders collaborate to find common ground, build consensus, and solve problems. Open primaries encourage candidates to reach beyond their base and to appeal more broadly for support, so they are better prepared to govern.
  • Unenrolled voters can help parties nominate the strongest candidates: those with the broadest appeal in the general election. The absence of independent voters in the primaries can result in parties nominating candidates who are unacceptable to a majority of voters.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.