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Bill to Change Maine Presidential Caucuses to Primaries Passes House

The Maine House has joined the Senate in endorsing a bill that would put Maine on the path to holding presidential primaries in 2020.

The move comes in the aftermath of this year’s caucuses, which resulted in voters waiting in long lines to attend the forums.

Republicans and Democrats in the Maine House gave overwhelming support to the bill that would establish a March presidential primary in Maine while charging the secretary of state with submitting a bill next year to address its costs and logistics.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says that while caucuses are more intimate and offer an opportunity for greater voter involvement, the option of casting a ballot in one’s hometown is also appealing.

“While it’s critically important that people be involved in our civic duties and our responsibilities in the caucus system, the reality is that a lot of people sometimes just aren’t going to make that choice to take essentially a Saturday and spend mostly that entire day driving to some place and then sitting down and going through the caucus process,” he says.

If the new primary system doesn’t work well, the legislation carries a sunset provision and would revert the state back to the presidential caucus system.

Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, says this year’s caucus experience in Portland attracted 4,000 people, many of whom gave up and went home after waiting in line for hours to get in.

“It wasn’t that people didn’t show up to be part of the process, they actually showed up and it was impossible to get through the door,” Russell said. “That is what disenfranchisement looks like. It’s not because people actively tried to disenfranchise voters — quite the contrary.”

“To me that’s an organizational problem that should be addressed by the parties and they have plenty of time to address those issues,” said Rep. Kathleen Dillingham, an Oxford Republican.

Dillingham opposed the bill, which she said attempted to provide a quick fix to an issue that should receive further study. She said the costs for the primaries shouldn’t be shouldered by Maine taxpayers and should instead be absorbed by the political parties, which she said were responsible for planning the events in the first place.

“Portland could have had six caucusing locations, but their organizers chose to go with just one,” Dillingham said. “Having six locations probably would have helped those folks turning out and having to wait in those long lines.”

House members disagreed, voting 128-22 in favor of the bill that faces final votes in both houses.

Copyright 2016 Maine Public

A.J. came to Maine Public Radio in August 2007 after a stint as a staff writer for Blethen Maine Newspapers. His news coverage for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta also appeared in the Waterville Morning Sentinel, the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram. Prior to joining the Kennebec Journal, A.J. served for 13 years as political editor and State House bureau chief for the Bangor Daily News.

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