AUGUSTA — Both chambers of the Legislature have passed a bill that would begin the process of making Maine a presidential primary state.

L.D. 1673 would direct the Secretary of State’s Office to analyze the cost of holding primary elections instead of the caucuses that Maine’s political parties now use in presidential election years. The secretary of state would then recommend legislation to switch to a primary system, giving lawmakers another chance to deliberate the change.

On Tuesday, the House voted 128-22 to support the measure. In the Senate, it passed unanimously “under the hammer,” without debate or a roll call vote. The bill will be sent to Gov. Paul LePage, who has in the past voiced his support for switching to presidential primaries.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, introduced the bill late last month after record turnout overwhelmed some caucus locations around the state. The problem was particularly acute at Portland’s Democratic caucus, during which some voters waited as long as four hours in a line that stretched more than a half-mile.

Backers say state-run primary elections, in which voters cast ballots at polling places as in general elections, would likely draw more voters than the hours-long, town meeting-style caucuses. Maine held presidential primaries in 1996 and 2000 but switched back to caucuses at the request of the political parties.

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, said she couldn’t even see the end of the line in Portland last month and heard from many people who were either unable to stand in line or saw others leave before voting.

“We need to move to a more rational system,” Russell said during the House floor debate. “I understand we have some soft spots for the caucus system and in other parts of the state it certainly may work well. But I’m not interested in seeing people disenfranchised simply because of a system that is archaic and outdated.”

Under L.D. 1673, primary elections would be held on a Tuesday in March. They would be “closed primaries,” open only to registered members of that particular party. The state would pay for primary elections, unlike caucuses, which are paid for by the political parties.

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, estimated that only 10 people from the five towns in his district attended the regional Republican caucus held in Bangor on March 5. If Maine had held primary elections, participation from his district probably would have been closer to 500 people, he said.

Maine’s caucuses have their defenders. Rep. Chris Babbidge, D-Kennebunk, said caucuses help people get to know their neighbors and create a civil political dialogue among participants.

“Democracy in the United States, to me, is about community, and caucuses are an opportunity to get away from the 30-second ads and media blitz,” Babbidge said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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