U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders won Maine’s Democratic presidential caucuses Sunday, defeating Hillary Clinton by a large margin on a day that saw unprecedented turnout statewide.
But waits as long as four hours in Portland prompted one Democratic leader to suggest it’s time for Maine to replace caucuses with primaries.
Sanders was leading Clinton 64 percent to 36 percent just after 10 p.m. with 91 percent of the caucus locations reporting, according to a tally from The Associated Press.
With his victory in Maine, Sanders picked up an eighth state – and his third in New England – as he tries to slow Clinton’s momentum and chip away at her sizable delegate lead. While Maine accounts for just 30 of the 3,138 delegates up for grabs nationwide, Sunday’s outcome meant Sanders picked up three of the four states that held primaries or caucuses over the weekend.
“With another double-digit victory, we have now won by wide margins in states from New England to the Rocky Mountains and from the Midwest to the Great Plains,” Sanders, who was debating Clinton in Michigan as the Maine results came in, said in a prepared statement. “This weekend alone we won in Maine, Kansas and Nebraska. The pundits might not like it but the people are making history. We now have the momentum to go all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.”
Democratic officials estimated that 46,800 people participated in Sunday’s caucuses held at more than 400 locations around the state, beating the previous record of roughly 44,000 participants in 2008. The Democratic turnout also dwarfed the 18,650 Republicans who participated in that party’s Maine caucuses one day earlier. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas captured the most delegates during the Republican caucuses, followed by Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“We’d like to thank the thousands of Maine Democrats who committed their day to caucusing for their presidential candidate,” said Maine Democratic Party chairman Phil Bartlett. “We know that it is this enthusiasm and energy that will give us great momentum heading into November.”
LONG WAITS, CONFUSION, DELAYS
While Democratic leaders cheered the potentially record-setting turnout, the day was also marred by long lines at some caucus locations, most notably in Portland, where the queue stretched for more than a half-mile and thousands of voters waited for up to four hours. In fact, the lines were so long – and the confusion so apparent – that both the city’s mayor and one of its state senators called on Maine to drop the caucus tradition and revert to primary elections.
“This is unacceptable,” Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said as he stood outside the entrance to the city’s only caucus location, Deering High School. “We ought to have a better system to process people or we ought to have a primary. … If you are going to have a caucus, we need to be prepared. And party leaders were not prepared for it. Two presidential elections in a row we have had this sort of backup, and it’s just unacceptable.”
As of 2 p.m., the advertised cutoff time for registered Democrats to be in line, the queue snaked from the side entrance of Deering High, down three neighborhood streets, around the athletic fields behind the school and ended just short of Stevens Avenue a half-mile away. While many appeared intent on waiting it out, an unknown number of people unable or unwilling to stand outside for hours left without voting.
As the confusion and frustration mounted, party officials announced they would let those in line fill out a paper ballot – essentially an absentee ballot – once they made it inside the school rather than require everyone to participate in the traditional, town meeting-style caucus. The scene was confused outside, however, as those waiting in line wondered whether they would be able to participate. And as the clock approached 6 p.m. – more than six hours after doors opened – dozens of frustrated people were still waiting to cast ballots after being told they were ineligible or were not on voter lists.
Sue Andersen and her husband, Steve Carroll, waited more than three hours only to be told their names did not appear on the list of registered voters, despite having enrolled in the Democratic Party before the mid-February deadline. The couple’s friend, Agnes Niyonizigiye, was also in limbo after trying to change her status from “unenrolled” to a registered Democrat. A Burundi native who became a naturalized U.S. citizen last September, Niyonizigiye said she had been looking forward to participating in her first electoral process.
All three were eventually allowed to fill out absentee ballots, although Andersen said she was unsure they would be counted.
“It’s a mess,” Carroll said.
Late Sunday afternoon, Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he would submit an after-deadline bill on Monday to establish presidential primaries in Maine.
“Maine’s voter turnout has always been a point of pride, and while local party officials were prepared for big crowds at the local caucus, the awe-inspiring turnout meant too many had to wait in long lines to make their voices heard,” Alfond said in a statement. “We need to have a conversation, once again, about the best way to nominate our presidential candidates, and ensure the process is easy and accessible to all.”
With just 30 delegates up for grabs, Maine is a relatively small prize as Clinton and Sanders race to amass the 2,382 delegates needed to secure the presidential nomination. But the state’s Democratic caucuses drew national attention because Maine was the only state to hold Democratic caucuses or primaries on Sunday.
VOTERS PATIENT AND ENTHUSIASTIC
In Portland, many of those standing in line remained relatively upbeat despite the wait.
Silvi Roy, Jessica Cunningham and Bethany Snow – all Sanders supporters – were hopping up and down on the sidewalk to keep warm after nearly 2½ hours outside in the wind and temperatures in the 30s.
“I wish I was ‘feeling the Bern’ right now,” a chilled Roy said, playing on the candidate’s popular slogan. “But I think it’s important to be a part of this.”
“It’s history, and as unfortunate as it is to wait in line for four hours, it’s also exciting to see how enthusiastic people are,” said Cunningham.
David Bragdon, 54, also wasn’t complaining about the wait. He and several others standing nearby played games scribbled out on a notepad to pass the time.
“I support Hillary because I think she has the right mix of experience, judgment and character,” said Bragdon, who has followed the candidate’s career since he met her and former President Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign. But Bragdon said he also likes Sanders and would not be disappointed if the Vermont senator won in Maine on Sunday.
Asked about the turnout and resulting line, Bragdon smiled and said, “I think it’s great.”
Caucus locations elsewhere around Maine also saw sizable turnout, although nothing on the scale of the state’s largest city.
In Augusta, 350 people attended the caucus and another 185 cast absentee ballots. Sanders also received the most support in Maine’s capital city, winning 323 to Clinton’s 208 votes, according to caucus chairwoman Maeghan Maloney, who is district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties.
“It was so exciting to have that many people present,” Maloney said afterward. “I had many people tell me they had never attended a caucus before.”
Neither Clinton nor Sanders was in Maine on Sunday, although Sanders had stumped in Maine last week and both had “surrogates” traveling the state on their behalf over the weekend. Unlike with Republicans on Saturday, the results of Maine’s Democratic caucuses are non-binding. Instead, Sunday’s votes will be used to elect participants to the state convention, where party faithful will select the 25 of the 30 delegates who will go to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Maine also has five “superdelegates,” who are elected officials or party leaders.
Clinton has accrued 651 delegates in the primaries and caucuses so far compared by 456 for Sanders. But Clinton’s lead grows to 1,121 delegates – versus 481 for Sanders – when including the superdelegates who have already pledged their support to either candidate. Superdelegates are free to change their support, however.
The Kennebec Journal contributed to this report.