March 20, 2013

Our View: Maine should change its primary system

One open primary that selects candidates for the November ballot could improve the process.

Former state Sen. Kevin Raye got it right this week when he said Maine's presidential selection process should be more inclusive.

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Those attending the Democratic caucus on Feb. 26, 2012, in Portland applaud a candidate. Maine should have a single, open primary for all candidates for statewide office and Congress.

2012 Press Herald File Photo/Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Raye was speaking in favor of a Maine presidential primary to replace the caucus system, which was recommended in a blunt assessment of the 2012 elections by the Republican National Committee.

"Anytime you can make the process more inclusive, that's a good thing," Raye said.

While he was talking only about a Republican presidential primary in 2016, his logic could be carried out even further.

Maine picks most of its party nominees for Congress and Legislature in primaries in which only a tiny fraction of the electorate chooses to take part.

In 2010, for instance, candidate Paul LePage won the Republican nomination for governor with 49,126 votes – or about 8 percent of the total eventual turnout in November. Cynthia Dill won the 2012 Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate with 22,629 votes, which was about 3 percent of the electorate that turned out in November.

Party primaries may be more inclusive than caucuses, but they still attract little more than the most committed members of a party's base. That has created the opportunity for well-financed independent candidates who can avoid a bruising primary and jump into the race, splitting constituencies and creating opportunities for candidates to win with less than a majority – something both parties have been able to take advantage of.

If Raye is correct that the more inclusive process the better, then it's more than Maine's presidential caucus system that needs to be rehauled.

Maine should have a single, open primary for all candidates for statewide office and Congress, with a runoff for the top two vote getters on Election Day. These candidates could be from the same party. They could be from neither party. But they would be the ones who most voters wanted to see on the ballot.

An open primary would bring more people into the process and produce a candidate who had the backing of a majority of voters. It would also treat all candidates equally, whether they were in a party or not.

The Republican National Committee is not the only entity that should be doing some soul searching these days. We all should be looking for elections that provide clear choices and mandates for governing. A new primary system could do that.


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