There’s been a push in Maine of late to move away from the presidential nominating caucuses and toward a presidential primary, and that’s a good thing.

Caucuses are complicated, difficult to run and confusing to voters. It costs the two state parties a lot of money to run caucuses, and the decentralized nature of them – each party has its own rules, procedure and dates – make access much more difficult for everyday voters. When you have primaries on one day all over the state, with plenty of opportunities to vote before election day, it makes participation pretty easy – which is why Maine frequently has one of the highest voter participation rates in the nation. With a regular primary, anyone enrolled in a party can vote and you can easily vote even if you’re out of the state or overseas.

Caucuses are completely different. You have to show up in person on a particular day to vote, and depending on the program, you may have to be there for quite some time –even hours. That’s because party caucuses aren’t just an election – they’re an organizational opportunity for each party. They often use the event to elect local party officials, hear from local candidates, gather signatures and even raise money – which explains why some activists in both parties are reluctant to do away with them completely.

Moreover, absentee voting may or may not be available, and if you’re an unregistered voter or an independent joining the party to participate in the caucuses, you’ve definitely got a long day ahead of you. As we’ve seen in both parties in years past, when participation vastly outperforms estimates, caucuses can get overwhelmed in a way that primaries do not, leading to long lines and lengthy waits. All of this means that caucuses – even more so than primaries – usually attract only the most dedicated party activists. That often gives an advantage to candidates with a diehard following in their own party who have little to no chance of ever winning the general election, even if they were the nominee.

The chaos and confusion that are frequently present in even well-run caucuses – combined with the inherent potential for tomfoolery, whether on the part of the party or individual candidates – are strong arguments in favor of switching to a state-run primary system. Primaries are completely familiar to Maine voters, since we use them in elections for every other partisan office in the state. There’s no particular reason why presidential elections should be different at a state level.

With Democrats in full control of state government and facing the prospect of a hotly contested primary, there’s every reason to think they’ll pull the lever and make that switch. That’s reasonable, and Republicans should be quietly relieved by the time 2024 rolls around and the Republican Party again faces a seriously contested fight for their nomination.

However, Maine should avoid making any other changes to its primaries at the moment. For one, if we’re going to switch from being a caucus state to a primary state, we don’t need to throw any other wrenches into the works right now. Let’s try running a presidential primary next year without making any other big changes.

For another, there’s no real need to further tinker with Maine’s primary system, either for presidential elections or any other office. We should disregard the calls to move Maine to a completely open primary system – where any voter can participate in any primary – over from the closed party primaries we currently employ. It’s a bit of a misnomer to call Maine’s current primaries closed – it’s really easy for anyone to participate. If you’re an unenrolled voter, you can join a party on the day of the primary and vote in the primary. If you’re in one of the parties, you can switch parties as long as you do it 15 days before the primary.

Maine also has a long history of electing independents. We’ve had two independent governors, we have an independent U.S. senator and Maine was one of Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson’s best states in 2016. Mainers are independent-minded folks who don’t feel hemmed in by the two parties at all.

If we lived in a state that never elected independents, or that was completely dominated by one party, advocates might have a better case for open primaries – but neither is at all the case here in Maine. Our primaries are open enough as it is; there’s no need for any further changes.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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