AUGUSTA –– Maine’s independent voters have long outnumbered voters who declare themselves Republican, Democrat or Green Independent. But independent voters have little say in primary elections here because Maine is one of only 11 states that limit primary voting to party members.

At least two proposals before the Legislature would change that requirement, which has existed since 1954 or earlier. Supporters told lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday that the efforts are designed to reverse the disenfranchisement of Maine’s largest voting block and, perhaps, lead to the election of moderate candidates less wedded to party ideology and aligned interest groups.

Similar proposals have been routinely – and usually quietly – defeated in the Legislature. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the sponsor of L.D. 744, said that’s because the initiatives are perceived as threats to the two major political parties.

Katz’s bill and another, L.D. 720, from Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, arrive at a time when many voters appear to want electoral reform.

Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery, told the committee that his constituents are increasingly unhappy.

“Voters seem to want to elect people, not parties,” he said. “The biggest political party in Maine is the unenrolled.”

ENCOURAGING PRIMARY PARTICIPATION

Activists are organizing a 2016 ballot initiative to establish ranked-choice voting, a system in which voters rank their preferred candidates to ensure that the winner receives a majority of the vote, not a plurality.

A 2013 Pew Research Center study showed that 38 percent of Americans identified themselves as independent. It was the highest level of political independence since 1992, a trend that was interrupted only in 2008 when there was a spike in Democratic voter enrollment before the election of President Obama.

In Maine, independents have accounted for about 37 percent of registered voters since 2007. The past two gubernatorial elections were contentious contests that some critics say made the campaigns more about appealing to party loyalists than motivating Mainers who don’t fully endorse either side.

“Let’s face it, there is a large block of people out there who do not have a great deal of confidence in either political party and just do not want an R or a D next to their name,” Katz said Wednesday. “That is really unfortunate, and perhaps not fair, but we must face that as a reality.”

Katz said his proposal is designed to encourage participation by allowing unenrolled voters to cast ballots during primary elections. He noted the “pathetic” voter turnout in the 2014 primary. It was 10 percent statewide and 14 percent nationally, according to the Center for Study for the American Electorate. Last year, Maine’s 58.5 percent turnout led the nation in the general election, when unenrolled voters participated.

Under Katz’s proposal, Maine would join the 24 states that have hybrid primary systems.

Mainers who want to vote in a primary now must enroll in a political party. Those who do must remain affiliated with the party for three months before unenrolling or joining another party. Katz’s bill would allow unenrolled voters to show up during a primary election and request either a Republican or Democratic ballot.

TYPES OF LOOSER PRIMARIES DIFFER

Maine is now one of 11 closed primary states, and the only one in New England, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, the definition of a closed primary and semi-closed primary varies.

In New Hampshire and Rhode Island, voters must temporarily choose a party to vote in a primary. However, they can fill out a form that allows them to unenroll immediately after the primary election.

Vermont is one of 11 open primary states. Any registered voter can vote in a primary, regardless of party affiliation or enrollment. For example, a registered Democrat can vote for a Republican candidate or vice versa.

Critics of open primaries say political parties can game the system by “party crashing,” a tactic in which a political party coordinates to vote for the opposite party’s least electable candidate in the primary.

Daughtry’s proposal would create what’s known as a top-two primary system. California, Nebraska, Louisiana and Washington have adopted some form of that system, which lists all candidates on a single ballot, regardless of party. Voters pick their favorite candidates and the top two vote-getters move on to the general election.

“Since 2012 I’ve heard from many constituents that they would like Maine to re-evaluate how we conduct our elections,” Daughtry said.

Neither proposal generated any opposition during Wednesday’s public hearing. However, support was limited to co-sponsors.

Ann Luther, testifying on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Maine, told lawmakers that the desired result may not come from either proposal. She noted that the barriers to participating in Maine elections are already low, and that unenrolled voters can already participate in primaries if they enroll in a party.

WARY OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

According to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, the states with the highest voter turnout in the 2014 primaries were Montana (open primary), Kentucky (closed primary), Nebraska (top-two primary), Mississippi (hybrid), Oregon (hybrid) and California (top-two primary).

Arizona, which has a primary system like the one Katz has proposed, had a turnout rate of 10 percent – the same as Maine’s.

Luther also noted that a top-two primary system could make it harder for independent candidates to get elected because it eliminates the current system of gathering signatures to get on the ballot. The only way to get on the general election ballot, she noted, would be to win the primary.

The top-two system could have other unintended consequences that lead parties to handpick candidates before voters have the chance. Luther cited a congressional race in California in which a crowded field of Democratic candidates split the district’s liberal vote, resulting in two Republican candidates appearing on the ballot for the general election.

In the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral race, a contest between two liberal Democrats with few policy differences was described by Time magazine as “a vicious negative campaign.” Nineteen percent of the city’s 1.8 million registered voters participated, according to election results.

The two proposals will face work sessions before going to a full vote by the Legislature.