Capitol Notebook: Party caucuses reward the faithful, exclude others

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A long line of eager, shivering Democrats snaked around Portland High School in the snow eight years ago, waiting to enter the state party caucus to choose either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

The crowd of 4,000 people stretched back to Congress Street, waiting to begin the caucus process that took several hours. Obama won the statewide Democratic caucus that year.

This year, Maine Democratic and Republican party caucuses will be held all over the state during the first weekend in March, when party members can vote for a presidential candidate and delegates to the party conventions.

While the present caucus system (which has only been held since 2004; before that the parties could hold primaries) allows party activists to gather and build party membership, it excludes from the presidential selection process those party members who can’t spend three or four hours at the caucus. It also excludes the large number of Maine independent voters who don’t want to join a party, and who have no role in the process that will choose the two major candidates in the November election.

As you read this, the fabled Iowa caucus has finally, after an eternity, passed into history. As the first contest in the presidential sweepstakes, it has an out-sized role and attracts a swarm of pundits eager for the opening bell in a contest that drags out for more than a year. But there is an inordinate focus on a state that is not representative of the country. And the results there hinge those who can spend a whole evening at a caucus, and may disenfranchise some voters.

Maine Republicans made a mess of their 2012 caucuses, when party leaders released the results of the caucus before the votes from Washington County were tallied because votes there were delayed due to a snowstorm.

That brought an effort by former Senate President Kevin Raye to return the state to a system of primary voting, which ultimately died in the Legislature.

That same year, a divided and chaotic Republican state convention was hijacked by supporters of Ron Paul. That has brought a change in how Republicans will conduct their caucus this year. The Republican caucus will directly elect delegates to the national convention, bypassing the state convention and hoping to avoid a repeat of the party split. State convention delegates will be selected in a process separate from the presidential caucus.

The parties will post their local caucus sites on their websites for the weekend of March 5 (Republicans) and March 6 (Democrats).

For party leaders, the caucus is a way to build the party, and engage people in political activism beyond just casting a ballot.

But it may be time to explore a better way to get more Maine voters involved in the presidential primary selection process, and perhaps separate that from the system of party caucuses.

New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary is open to all state voters, and unenrolled or independent voters can choose which party primary to vote in. Independents there are a highly sought-after demographic for the candidates. In New Hampshire, voters have been drinking beer and having coffee with the candidates for many months, and they look for a personal interview before they cast their votes. Many of the independents this year will likely opt for the Republican ballot, and could be key arbiters in this wacky war between Republicans.

Changes in the presidential nominating process, controlled by the national parties, won’t come easy. New Hampshire won’t give up its starring role. But there might be a way to change Maine’s system to include more voters, and give the state a bigger role in this crucial process of selecting the nominees for president.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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  • yathink2011

    A great read, and very timely. It seems odd that in 2016, something as sacred as the right to vote is allowed to be commandeered by the Caucus. From Iowa today, “Clinton Supporters will sit over here, Sanders Supporters will sit over there. O’Malley Supporters have to stand over there” If there aren’t enough O’Malley Supporters to attain 15%, they can join one of the other two groups, or go home. It also sounds like there is a lot of intimidation, referred to as “wooing”, to get people to switch sides. So it’s possible people may be bullied to make their choice. It seems a little outdated for 2016.

  • Sue

    Agree completely. However, you can always send off for an absentee ballot if you’re already enrolled. I did, since I don’t know if I’ll be able to make my Democrat caucus. I personally don’t care about the delegate elections, and I’m not changing my vote, so I’m covered either way. I highly recommend, however, that Maine go back to primaries. Much much better for participation.