Public Hearing for LD1673, An Act to Establish a Presidential Primary System
– though he said up front that it needed work. He asked for time to work out some amendments and address the timing issues that always come up in any election (deadlines for nomination papers, time for absentee ballots, etc.). He also wants to figure out the exact costs to the state and municipalities. He said that if we held a primary on a Saturday overtime costs would drive up the total figure. However, hand-counted ballots would reduce the costs. He doesn’t support the part of the bill that creates an almost hybrid system of allowing parties to call and hold meetings around the voting. He said, “If you want the safeguards of having an official primary then have a primary.” The Committee asked Sec. Dunlap to come back with amendments to address his concerns.
When we finally turned to the testimony against the bill, cost was the first and main reason for opposition. No clear figures were given, but if we return to presidential primaries it was projected to cost least $1 million per primary and maybe as much as $4 million each. Since the state runs elections, this cost would become the responsibility of the taxpayers (while those costs fall to the parties under a caucus system). Senator Brakey pointed out that Maine has a large number of unenrolled (independent) voters and they would be forced to pay for a system in which they are not allowed to participate – because it would be a closed primary.
And, since each party has its own rules for picking a presidential candidate, it was unclear whether or not the primaries for all three parties could be held on the same day. Senator Scheck proposed moving a primary closer to the one in New Hampshire to take advantage of some the economic benefits – candidates, organizers, media who come in and need to be fed and housed – as a way to offset some of the costs of a primary system. He raised the idea three times before party insiders informed us that both New Hampshire and the major parties have rules in place to prevent this. In order to maintain their special status in the primary season, the New Hampshire legislature has made it impossible for another state to piggy-back on their schedule. According to Peggy Schaeffer, Vice Chair of the Democratic Party in Maine, Democrats in Maine cannot hold a caucus or primary until after Super Tuesday and this may change from year to year. If this rule is violated, the Maine delegates aren’t counted at the national convention.
All this is to illustrate just how convoluted and problematic the system is. Not only is it expensive for the State to run but it also requires that an election allow for the rules of the parties. Rep. Schneck expressed his frustration that our internal state rules would be controlled by another state and by the national parties. Why should New Hampshire control our voting schedule? Why should local municipalities bear the staff overtime costs of a presidential primary or caucus with a bigger than average turnout? Shouldn’t the parties foot the bill, not the state? Why should the unrolled be made to join a party and as tax payers pay for two parties’ process they don’t want to join? Aren’t we guilty of disenfranchisement?
Other opponents, and some committee members, expressed concern about what would be lost if we rejected the caucus system. The chance to gather as a party, meet their representatives, discuss issues, and decide local party matters could be lost because people are unlikely to attend a meeting. It was acknowledged that the high turnouts were because of the presidential candidates, and so it was feared that even fewer people would engage with the parties on a local level if we abandon caucuses.
One citizen testifier pointed out that we must view what happened as a huge success. That number of people turning out to vote is a triumph for democracy. The problems, he said, was that it was poorly organized. Why throw out a system that drew so many people – let’s fix it! Rep. Monaghan (D. Cape Elizabeth) added to this: The systems failed – parties failed to prepare for what all knew would be a record turnout. They failed to open more sites, deputize more staff (rather than refuse to register any more people), failed to adequately educate voters about deadlines and absentee ballots. How can we address this?
It was agreed that Maine’s electorate was engaged, and the parties seemed unprepared for that. Peggy Schaeffer said that while the Democratic Party had systems in place, they weren’t scalable to such a large turnout. As the hearing drew to a close, Chairman Cyrway suggested the Committee review the past study done by the legislature recommending fixes (a study that was apparently ignored last time). “We need to find a way to fix or manage this system,” he said. “Maybe we can find someone to manage it and get it to the point it works.” The upshot was: Let’s not keep changing the process which only serves to disgruntle the already gruntled.
The VLA committee seemed really interested in working on this. It does seem that the Bill as written is in for some major changes; Matt Dunlop has his sleeves rolled up… Let’s hope it’s for a better system.
We appreciated Sen. Cyrway and Rep. Schneck taking after-session time to talk with us about the hearing and process some of the new ideas generated by all participants.