By Helen Hanlon
The Gang of 3 (Regina Coppens, Stephanie Philbrick, and I) listened attentively to hours of testimony before the VLA Committee. The rooms started out packed, with two camera crews and a long line of people waiting to testify. By 5:30, when the hearing ended, only a few die-hard spectators and Committee members were left. There was lots of discussion and testimony – all of the testimony is available here – but we offer some highlights from the hearing:
The bill was introduced by the main sponsor, Senator Alfond of Portland. Only a fraction of the more than 90 co-sponsors were on hand, but some were there to lend support. According to Senator Alfond, legislators heard lots of complaints after the caucuses. With record turnout across the state for both the GOP and Democratic caucuses, people waited hours in line, and some never even got to vote. In many locations, the traditional caucus format was abandoned for a hybrid system that allowed participants to cast a vote and leave. The result was angry citizens who felt disenfranchised and frustrated. In response, LD 1673 proposes to return to presidential primaries in lieu of the caucus system.
Throughout the testimony, it emerged that many of the problems were caused by poor communication and organization at the party level. Caucuses are the responsibility of the parties, not the state or municipalities, and the Democrats, Republicans, and Greens hold their own caucuses according to national party rules. They also fund the caucuses, provide training for local conveners, and handle public communications about the events. It became clear through testimony that many voters were confused by the system with some thinking that they could still vote in a presdiential primary if they skipped the caucus. Still many more didn’t understand the process and showed up too late to vote (or spent hours in line only to find out they were too late). And more were turned away because they were not registered and the municipal registrars, after staying the required time – and sometimes more – had gone for the day.
After similar issues arose in the past two presidential elections (for Democrats in 2008 and for Republicans in 2012), a bill to return to a presidential primary was proposed. It was, according to Sen. Alfond, put on hold, became a study, and ended there. Presidential primaries were held in 1996 and 2000. Prior to that, Maine traditionally had a caucus system so our current system is a return to one that older generations are familiar with.
The testimony began with co-sponsors and then proponents, so throughout the early part of the hearing speakers said a Primary System seemed to be what most voters wanted. Even some of the Committee members agreed that many voters want to show up, vote, and leave. However, Rep. Schneck (D. Bangor) said his District seemed split 50/50. Everyone agreed that waiting hours to vote was not to be tolerated. And, it was pointed out that once inside a caucus, people waited hours longer to vote and weren’t prepared (or interested) in the other business of the caucus. In Portland, the wait was up to 5 ½ hours – very difficult for younger voters (with odd work schedules) and those with children. In the North and Downeast, caucus-goers had to travel long distances to the one central location offered in their region. In Biddeford, the GOP caucus was shut down by the fire department because the facility was overcrowded. Co-sponsor Joyce Maker (Dist. 140) heard from a constituent who said that it was impossible to attend because she relies on oxygen. Between the long drive each way, waiting in line and waiting to caucus, the supply of oxygen in one bottle isn’t enough. Because of the long wait and long drive, she felt cut out of the system.
Secretary of State Matt Dunlap spoke in favor of the bill …. (continued)