The move to open primaries and a snapshot view of Maine’s primary election odyssey

6 mins read
Paul H. Mills

By Paul Mills

News that the legislature by bipartisan majorities has taken a step towards an open primary system in Maine has shed new light on the way our state chooses its nominees for public office in Maine.

The law, which – assuming it survives a final test on the Senate Appropriations Table – will be in effect in time for next year’s election season. It removes a long standing restriction that has limited the ability of voters not enrolled in a political party from participating in a party primary. Until now, voters were required to register in the party in whose primary they wished to vote. They were also locked into that party affiliation for the following three months.

These un-enrolled or so-called independent voters will now be able cast ballots in such semi-final contests without becoming a member of a political party. These nominating arenas are often tantamount to election. The idea here is that in Republican strongholds the GOP primary usually determines the November election winner and likewise in areas where the Democratic party is predominant its nominees are typically foreordained to win.

A restriction that remains on the books is one that keeps members of one political party from voting in another’s primary unless they change parties at least 15 days ahead of time. In this respect Maine is still a closed primary state. This was not always the case, however.

When the state first adopted the primary election system – this in the state‘s first citizen‘s initiative referendum campaign in 1911 – Maine was an open primary state. Here this meant that even though voters had to be enrolled in the same party whose primary they were voting, the choice could be made on the same day as the primary itself. This could occur even if that meant jumping ship from one party to another a moment before casting a vote.

This all changed after what historian Neil Rolde termed “one of the dirtiest, most corrupt, and closest elections in Maine history,” the 1924 GOP primary for governor. The two antagonists, Owen Brewster, then a Portland state senator and Senate President Frank Farrington of Augusta, faced off for the right to succeed outgoing Governor Percival Baxter. Because the GOP contest had fired up so much interest and because the Democratic candidate, William Pattangall, was unopposed for his nomination, Democrats in massive numbers temporarily took a leave of absence from their own party to cast votes in the Republican primary.

Though the perceived beneficiary of this, Senator Farrington, ultimately wound up losing by some 600 votes out of 94-thousand cast, the possibility that participation by one party’s voters in the primary of another’s could skew the results spurred action from the 1925 legislature. It enacted the state’s first closed primary law, prohibiting a voter from casting a vote in someone else’s primary unless a voter switched from one party to another at least six months before the primary itself.

The next crucial change in the way primaries are treated occurred in 1971. At that time the legislature abbreviated the time period to three months. Though the legislature relaxed eligibility requirements in this respect, it at the same time put more muscle in the primary system by enacting the state’s first sore loser law. This change prohibited candidates who lost their own primary from filing with either a third party or an independent in the general election. Before that time those who missed out on winning their own party’s primary could get a second bite at the apple by running against their own party’s nominee in November. This almost occurred the previous year in 1970 when an insurgent Democratic primary candidate, Plato Truman, who picked up 37 percent against Governor Curtis in June launched a nearly successful petition campaign to get his name on the November ballot to run against him again.

A further change occurred in 1993. That’s when the present 15 day deadline before a primary when a voter is required to change parties to vote in another’s primary was shortened from the three month rule passed in 1971.

The recent Senate and House actions in further lifting restrictions on the ability of those outside a political party to vote in primaries will no doubt ramp up participation in such elections from a group that commands the allegiance of nearly one third of all voters.

One consequence is that party candidates may likely make more of an attempt to appeal to middle ground voters. On the other hand, voters not affiliated with the party in whose primary they are voting may be casting ballots in a manner that would undermine the party’s dominant ideology.

How will this play out?

Time will tell.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail pmills@myfairpoint.net

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