The idea of open primaries is, once again, having its day before the Maine Legislature this session. The basic concept of open primaries is a pretty simple one: All voters can vote in a primary, regardless of whether they’re registered in that party or not.

None of the bills being considered in the Maine Legislature would quite do that, but one bill, L.D. 231, sponsored by Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, would allow unenrolled voters to vote in either party primary. While it’s an idea that at first blush seems reasonable, it’s one that’s not only completely unnecessary in Maine but could, in fact, have negative effects on both major parties.

Right now, Maine has closed primaries, so only voters registered in the party can vote in the primary. That’s not quite as cumbersome as it sounds, though, as unenrolled voters can simply decide to join a party and vote in its primary: if they do it in person, they can even do it on Election Day itself. Then they have to remain in that party for three months after they enroll; they can’t simply enroll one day and leave the next.

Even for those who wish to switch directly from one party to another, they have until 15 days before the elections. With Maine’s closed primaries, though, switching or enrolling in a party is not only relatively easy, the deadlines are much later than in other states. Essentially, there’s no reason to implement open primaries in Maine as our primaries aren’t terribly closed: they’re more like ajar primaries.

Rather than implementing open primaries, a more reasonable argument could be made that process of switching parties should be easier. Voters of any political persuasion could be allowed to switch parties on Election Day, not just unenrolled voters. Moreover, the turnover time – the 90-day period when voters have to remain enrolled in their new party – could be shortened or eliminated completely. If the state implemented some form of online voter registration, they could also consider implementing a way to switch party registration online, so voters don’t have to wait longer on Election Day just because they’re switching parties. All of those would be logical steps that make the process easier, especially for Mainers who are out-of-state and voting absentee.

Making it easier to switch parties or creating a truly open primary always raise the fear amongst partisans that voters in one party will cross over to nominate the weaker candidate in the other party, but in fact there have been precious few examples of such plans ever coming to fruition. It’s especially unlikely to ever become an issue in Maine, since the state is relatively competitive for both parties in the general election and the two parties often have competitive primaries in the same year. Although it’s not much of a real concern, that’s probably why the sponsors of the bill focused on expanding primaries to unenrolled voters.

There are good reasons to require voters to register in a party, however briefly, to vote in the primary, however. If either party has a particularly popular candidate, it helps to attract voters to their party, and that can not only help keep the party from nominating extremists, it can bring more moderates in to the party for the long run. Democrats saw this phenomenon at play in 2020, when people enrolled in droves in order to participate in the primary and vote for Joe Biden. His easy win in Maine might been shocking to some, since Bernie Sanders had won the caucuses four years before, but it’s part of the difference between a caucus and a primary: Primaries cast a wider net amongst the electorate, allowing for more voters to participate. Biden’s victory over Sanders shows that – in Maine at least – we don’t need to implement open primaries to mitigate the influence of ideologues, but just have them at all. Requiring voters to join the party to vote in a primary is the best way to fully document this effect, and that’s important for both parties.

Maine’s current primary system could use a few tweaks around the edges, but there’s no good reason to change to any form of open primaries. We not only already make it easy to switch parties and join them, we make it easy to vote in this state. Open primaries might be a good idea in other states (especially those dominated by one party), but in a competitive state where it’s easy to vote, like Maine, they’re a solution in search of a problem.

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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