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After Record-Breaking Weekend, Lawmakers Debate: Caucus or Primary?

Mal Leary reports on Maine's caucuses.

Record turnouts at this weekend’s Democratic and Republican Party caucuses are prompting calls for the return of the Maine primary system. The idea is generating bipartisan support, even among some unlikely political allies.

Portland Sen. Justin Alfond says he was surprised and grateful at the huge turnout in Portland, but he’s not at all pleased that so many Democrats, many his constituents, had to wait in line for hours to choose their preferred candidate in the race for president.

Alfond says the caucus process just couldn’t handle the unexpectedly large number of party members, and the new voters that showed up at caucus locations.

“We were seeing it all over the state yesterday and we heard about it Saturday from the Republican caucuses,” he says. “So this is something that is statewide. This is not a partisan issue, this isn’t a geographical issue. This is Maine needing to return to the primary system.”

Historically, primaries bring out more people. In the last presidential primary in Maine 16 years ago, over 96,000 Republicans turned out to vote, more than five times the number that showed up at Saturday’s caucuses.

The difference is less dramatic on the Democratic side, as over 64,000 Democrats voted in the 2000 primary, compared with 47,000 party members who took part in Sunday’s caucuses.

Democratic Party chairman Phil Bartlett says the party will closely examine the proposal to reinstate the primary.

“Going forward we will look at it, we will look at all the options,” he says. “We will look at primary, we will look at different ways of doing the caucuses, particularly in some of the larger cities.”

And the proposal could get enough support to be considered this session. House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport says he’s willing to co-sponsor the legislation. And Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport says he also likes the idea.

“There is a lot of decisions to be made around going from a caucus to a primary, and so I just want to talk with him, but I am very supportive of the concept,” Thibodeau says. “I think it is high time that we move to a primary.”

One sticking point, however, could be cost. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says if done with paper ballots, a presidential primary might only run around $30,000, but if the traditional voting machines are used and municipal costs are figured in, the price tag could run over $1 million.

Timing is another issue. Maine currently holds its other primary elections, for Legislature, Congress and the governor’s race, in June. Moving that date up would trigger changes in election law.

Republican Party chairman Rick Bennett has long supported primaries over caucuses, and says the question deserves debate. But he says the next presidential contest is four years away and questions why this issue should be tackled in a session that’s already loaded with more pressing matters, and is specifically designed to take up emergency measures.

“I know that the governor is supportive of it, but you know, I think it is best to consider this for what it is, which in the ordinary course of business would come in in the regular session,” Bennett says.

For consideration this session, at least six of the ten elected legislative leaders will have to sign off on the primary measure.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.

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