Our Viewpoint: Primary importance

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A third of Maine voters are shut out of an important part of Maine’s election process because they are not registered in a political party.

But one proposal being considered in this legislative session would allow those voters to participate, and would likely result in better candidates emerging in the general state elections.

LD 231, proposed by Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, would open up Maine’s primaries to voters unenrolled in parties, who comprise more than 30 percent of the electorate.

Presently, an unenrolled or independent voter must declare an affiliation with the party in order to vote in that party’s primary. Once they have registered, they cannot leave that party for three months. The process is cumbersome and unnecessary. It deters people from taking the steps to vote in the primary and forces an affiliation with a party the voter may not wish to join. And registering and unregistering places an undue burden on election officials.

LD 231 would allow unenrolled voters to choose one party’s primary ballot and vote in that primary, without having to register in the party. The voter would be able to play a role in deciding which candidates will be on the ballot in a general election. The quality of those candidates would improve. And in Maine, many legislative races are decided in the primaries, in which currently the unenrolled voters can’t participate. 

The open-primary effort has been stymied because the major political parties hope to maintain their power. But excluding voters from their process is counterproductive; candidates on the party extremes are more likely to be successful if the primaries are limited.

The best government policy in this area should be to encourage people to vote, not to make it difficult. Nor is it the role of government to prop up the political parties. 

It is clear that many voters are disaffected with the parties, and it is estimated that only 50 percent of millennials are enrolled in a party. This reform would open up the process to their participation.