AUGUSTA — The campaign to hold presidential primaries in Maine took a tentative step forward Monday.

A legislative committee voted unanimously in support of a bill that directs the Secretary of State’s Office to begin the groundwork for switching Maine from a caucus state to a primary state starting with the 2020 presidential election. The push toward holding primary elections gained traction last month after a record number of voters overwhelmed some caucus sites.

Lawmakers added a clause to the bill, L.D. 1673, that would allow the Legislature to stick with caucuses if it is uncomfortable with the anticipated cost or other aspects of holding primaries.

“We’re moving in a different direction but recognizing that we need to figure out a lot of these details,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the lead sponsor of the bill.

Maine is among the minority of states that hold presidential caucuses rather than primaries. Although the format varies from election to election, Maine caucus-goers typically gather in town halls, schools or other locations to hear speeches and then vote collectively for their presidential preferences. Caucuses usually take several hours but are valuable organizational and voter engagement events for the political parties.

Primaries, by contrast, are run like general elections, as voters cast ballots at their dedicated polling places.

Alfond’s bill, which has bipartisan support, proposes presidential primaries that would be held on a Tuesday in March and be run by the state rather than the political parties.

Maine’s Republican and Democratic parties reported record turnout for their respective presidential caucuses March 5 and 6. But they reported long lines, crowded caucus locations and organizational challenges, most notably during Portland’s Democratic caucus.

More than 4,000 people showed up for the Portland Democratic caucus, lining up for more than a half mile, many of them waiting three or four hours. Portland’s Democratic leaders eventually allowed attendees to cast paper ballots rather than wait for the traditional, town meeting-style caucus.

The presidential primaries bill has more than 80 co-sponsors, including several legislative leaders in addition to Alfond, who is the Senate minority leader.

But members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee questioned whether Alfond’s bill came too late in the legislative session. Lawmakers also were hesitant to endorse a switch when Secretary of State Matt Dunlap stressed that the $1 million estimate to run a primary is just that – an estimate.

“I’d hate to see this hurried, because this is a big decision,” said Sen. Scott Cyrway, R-Benton, the committee’s co-chairman. “We have some time. I’d like to see more details on the cost, what it is going to take to set this up and what went wrong on the caucuses.”

After several other lawmakers expressed similar concerns, Dunlap suggested a compromise that eventually picked up unanimous support from the 12 committee members present Monday.

Under the amended bill, Dunlap’s office would spend the next year analyzing the cost of primary elections, which unlike the party-funded caucuses would be borne entirely by state government. Dunlap’s office would also submit a bill in next year’s legislative session with all of the details of a primary election.

Lawmakers would then have until the 2018 legislative session to adopt the new system outlined in the bill. If lawmakers did not act by Dec. 31, 2018, a “sunset clause” would be triggered and the plan to switch to primaries would “just blink out of existence,” Dunlap said.

The inclusion of what is essentially a back-out clause was enough to sway skeptics on the committee.

“I do have a little bit of anxiety going forward this way, but with the sunset I probably can go along with it to make sure we are headed in the right direction,” said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, who said he heard from numerous loyal local Democrats who like the caucus system.

Lawmakers briefly discussed relegating the primary bill to a study commission. In 2012, then-Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, proposed changing to a primary system, months after his own party’s caucuses were beset with problems that spilled over into the party’s state and national conventions. But the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee relegated the issue to a study commission, and nothing came of the initiative.

Rep. Beth Turner, R-Burlington, pointed out that even though both parties drew record numbers of voters during the March caucuses, the turnout was still well below what it would likely be with primary elections.

“I’m concerned that if we don’t do something that pushes this forward that we will all forget again,” she said.

The bill will now go to the Senate for consideration. Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, has yet to weigh in on the bill but he supported the 2012 measure to switch to primary elections.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH


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