Open Primaries Should Head List of Crisis-Driven Election Reforms
Many Mainers, for the first time, have been confronted with what it means to have their right to vote threatened. It’s a deeply unsettling feeling. Which is why editorial boards across the state, including, on April 5, the Maine Sunday Telegram, have called for steps to be taken to ensure broad voter participation and safety.
As Gov. Mills has declared: “A person’s right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, and I take seriously government’s responsibility to ensure that every Maine person has the opportunity to have their voice heard ”
If all voices are to be heard, then Maine must confront the reality of its closed primaries. It’s way past time to open them up.
There are 371,305 independent voters in Maine, more than are enrolled in either major party. Their right to vote in publicly funded and government-administered elections is threatened not just this year, but every primary election year. Maine is only one of 12 states that prohibits independent voters from voting in primaries. That’s not only wrong. but also totally undemocratic!
Independent Voter Demographic
For years, our state has labeled independent voters “unaffiliated” and required them to join a party on Election Day in order to vote. It ignores the very reason so many are independent in the first place. Now, at a moment of great crisis, when the conversation about allowing everyone to vote from home takes on urgency, we have to end this failing practice. It simply doesn’t work, as ballots would necessarily have to be mailed out well before independents had the chance to consider that option.
Who are independent voters? They are young people – about half of millennials identify as independents. They are veterans – 47 percent of military members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are independents. They are schoolteachers and business owners, your neighbors and your friends. They come from all walks of life and have different opinions on the issues, but they are united in one respect: They don’t want to join a private political party in order to vote.
Primaries are publicly funded elections. Why should the largest group of voters in the state be required to join a private organization if they want to participate in publicly funded elections? Forced association is not democracy – it is pure hypocrisy. It mocks one of our country’s founding principles: No taxation without representation!
Closed Primaries Disenfranchise Voters
Our state’s closed primaries don’t just disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of our citizens but also hurt every Mainer. Seventy percent of our legislative elections are decided in the primary. Shutting out independent voters creates a political environment where fair-minded politicians of all stripes are incentivized to engage in partisan pandering because only partisans can vote.
That’s not who we are. Mainers have faith in each other. We don’t vote in lockstep with one party or the other – we vote for candidates, not parties. Above all, we believe in a healthy dose of common sense. Polling that Mainers for Open Elections conducted with the national group Open Primaries shows that 80 percent of Maine voters support opening the state’s primary elections.
There are alternatives. Washington state has the most democratic system. They have dispensed with so-called public elections in which private parties get to be the gatekeepers of who can vote and they simply hold one public primary. All the candidates are on one ballot and everyone votes. We already know that works well; it’s the same nonpartisan election system used by every Maine city. Colorado mails every independent voter a Democratic and a Republican ballot, and those voters get to decide which primary to vote in. Either would work in Maine. We could transition to mail balloting without perpetuating a partisan electoral system that disenfranchises almost 38 percent of the public.
COVID-19 is affecting every aspect of life. Let’s use the opportunity to get rid of the outdated and unnecessary practice of trying to force Maine independents to join a party in order to vote.
Our closed primary elections continue to tear at the foundation of the representative democracy that our leaders claim to want to protect. It’s time to let every Mainer be heard at the ballot box and hold our politicians accountable to truly put the voters first.