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The Maine Idea: Open primaries haven’t worked elsewhere, won’t work in Maine

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Two bills currently before the Legislature would allow unenrolled voters to cast ballots in party primary elections – the so-called “open primary” system used, in one form or another, in some 36 states.

One of them, LD 231, has a dynamic sponsor in Sen. Chloe Maxmin, a Democrat who defeated the previous Republican Senate leader to take the Lincoln County seat last year. While similar previous bills have gotten nowhere, this one may have a chance.

The argument for allowing “independent” voters to join a Republican or Democratic primary is that Maine has so many of them – no longer the largest bloc, since the Democrats have again pulled ahead, but second, ahead of the GOP and the Greens.

True, an unenrolled voter can take advantage of Maine’s election-day registration law to join a party, vote in the primary, and unenroll 90 days later. But, as one sympathetic editorialist put it, why should voters have to go through such a “charade?”

One might ask, in return, why someone who can’t be bothered to join a party, even temporarily, should be able to help choose that party’s nominee for November – when there can be only on D and one R on the ballot, plus, in theory, an unlimited number of unenrolled candidates.

Frank Coffin, who re-energized the Maine Democratic Party in 1954, after a full century in which Republicans won almost all the partisan elections, said it best. Rather than being virtuously “non-partisan,” as independent voters like to claim, he said, they are really bystanders, uninvolved in the hard work of party-building.

The real problem with the open primary involves two realities. One is that more than 98% of all candidates elected to Congress and to state legislatures are either Republicans or Democrats; independents are a negligible force.

Second, despite this continued preponderance, the two major parties have never been so useless as vehicles for debating issues and proposing solutions. Since the 1980s, they have, more and more, become cash registers for major donors, as party platforms have withered away; Donald Trump’s Republicans didn’t even bother to write one in 2020.

This is a vital function that simply must be restored, if not at the federal level yet, then beginning in states like Maine, which have not yet become one-party systems.

Consider: Even a generation ago, there was significant diversity within parties, and not just between them. Democrats, who once relied on Catholic voters, had significant number of anti-abortion officeholders. And Republicans back then were not a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association, nor did they automatically vote against any bill termed “environmental.”

Today’s parties enforce a rigorous litmus test on a host of issues. If an individual party candidate disagrees, too bad. You have to toe the line if you’re going to get the big donations.

In short, the parties have become caricatures of what they once were, when passionate debates over slavery, the national response to intense concentrations of private wealth, and America’s place in the world regularly roiled party conventions.

To wish their return is not mere nostalgia, but a necessary condition if we’re truly going to confront the challenges of global warming and pandemics. It has to be more than either/or, “to mask or not to mask.”

It’s hard to see that open primaries, or a similar recent reform, ranked-choice voting, will do anything to change that, except at the margins. Neither gets to the heart of the problem, which is that the fundraising free-for-all created by the U.S. Supreme Court encourages, and almost requires, maximalist rhetoric in campaigns.

The dismal contest between Sen. Susan Collins and her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, must stand as the object lesson. Despite nearly $200 million in spending, it’s hard to recall a single issue that might have persuaded voters, one way or the other.

The motivations of those who promote open primaries and ranked-choice voting are commendable. They want to create a better, more responsive political system, though they might be better served by trying to export to other states Maine’s one truly impressive voting reform – the Clean Election system of public financing.

Open primaries haven’t worked wonders elsewhere, and ranked-choice has been taken up for state elections only in Alaska, where’s there’s barely an organized party system at all.

Fortunately, there’s another idea that might achieve the same aims, while prodding parties to truly represent voters in all their diversity, once again. It’s called fusion voting, and will be the subject of another column, quite soon.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, commentator, reporter and author since 1984. His new book is “First Franco: Albert Beliveau in Law, Politics and Love.” Visit the website, https://douglasrooks.weebly.com/#/ or e-mail: [email protected]



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