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Norm Higgins, a state representative from Dover-Foxcroft, left the Republican Party in 2017 because he was fed up with the partisanship in Augusta. He finished out that term as an independent and was re-elected as an independent in 2018.
Higgins, a former teacher and principal, criticized the atmosphere at the State House. Prior to the party switch, he had been one of only a few Republicans to vote for a compromise budget. But Gov. Paul LePage vetoed that budget, sending the state government into a three-day government shutdown.
Announcing the party switch, Higgins described the Augusta atmosphere as a place where policy goals took a back seat to “outcomes measured in wins and losses.”
One effort to open up the two-party logjam in Augusta might be getting independent voters more involved in elections at an early stage. Higgins is a co-sponsor of a bill in this session that would permit independent voters to take part in state primary elections.
One-third of Maine voters do not register in any political party, and can’t vote in primaries, paid for by taxpayers, where the major candidates for Legislature and governor are chosen. Higgins noted that as an active voter and independent, he was shut out of primary elections.
Backers of the bill noted that an even higher percentage of young voters do not enroll in a political party, and those voters should not be discouraged.
But bold ideas often meet a gloomy fate in Augusta, and this bill, LD 211, faces an uphill fight in the Legislature. Maine could remain one of only 11 states that don’t allow some form of open primary.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee took testimony on the bill in April, but after an 11-2 committee vote against it on April 26, it faces long odds in the full Legislature. Only one Democrat, and an independent, voted for it.
Proposals to change Maine’s primary and elections systems often fall on the deaf ears of both Democrats and Republicans. Efforts to enact ranked-choice voting met defeat in the Legislature, before passing in a referendum vote
Party leaders fear that allowing independent voters would diminish the parties. But one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, cited research from the Bipartisan Policy Center, which argued the opposite.
“The reality is that unaffiliated voters lean strongly toward one side,” Chenette’s research found. “If a party wants to broaden its reach for the general election, allowing independents to cast ballots in primaries could help with both party building and boosting turnout.”
There’s a good argument that engaging independent voters in the primary elections could help the parties and develop better candidates.
As the law stands now, unenrolled voters can join a party on Election Day, but they must wait 90 days before unenrolling from the party. But independent voters shouldn’t have to pretend they suddenly want to join in order to vote. We should make it easier, not harder for people to participate in voting.
LD 211 is one of various election reform bills in this session, including one to return to a presidential primary, replacing the chaotic caucuses held in 2016. Other bills would limit or enhance the system of ranked-choice voting.
Like many reforms that hit a legislative wall, if the effort to open Maine primaries fails in this session it could likely be the subject of a referendum attempt.
Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.