To Caucus or Primary – that is the question

By Helen Hanlon

LD1673, An Act to Establish a Presidential Primary System

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)

Report from the Statehouse: SLG Committee Public Hearing May 27

By Helen Hanlon

Demonstrators crowded the entrance to the State House for a press conference in anticipation of the Public Hearing on HP 956 (A Joint Resolution Calling For a Constitutional Convention Regarding The Status of Corporations As People and the Role Of Money In the Election Process). Dressed in a variety of garb sure to draw attention – especially in the 90 degree heat –their passion was obvious.

With a full afternoon of hearings ahead, we all streamed into the SLG Hearing room. There was an overflow crowd to hear proposals for changes to the selection process of State constitutional officers (Attorney General, Secretary of State and State Treasurer). The full SLG Committee was in attendance, though some needed to leave during the long afternoon for work on other Committees. To my surprise, Senate Chair Whittemore said that each proposal for each office would be heard separately.

LD 1417 (Resolution, Proposing an Amendment  to The Constitution Of Maine  To Change The Selection Process for The Attorney General)

LD1418 (Resolution, Proposing An Amendment To The Constitution Of Maine To Provide For A Lieutenant Governor and Change The Line of Succession For Governor)

LD 1419 (Resolution, Proposing An Amendment To The Constitution Of Maine To Change the Selection Process for The Treasurer of State)

First-term Legislator, Rep. Stetkis, presented each proposal while acknowledging that these were the Governor’s bills. Despite that, he faced very tough grilling, primarily from Reps. Evangelos and Co-Chair Martin with a few more polite jabs from Rep. Babbidge. Rep. Stetkis, took it in good humor, admitting he’d had no part in writing any of these proposals and hadn’t spoken to the Governor about why we needed these changes. This was all in the spirit of getting away from partisan politics, he said. After the guffaws subsided, the very public issues between the Attorney General and the Governor were rehashed and the consolidation of power was mentioned. Hank Fenton, Deputy Counsel to the Governor, spoke on behalf of the Governor, saying that a more efficient, cohesive team would be better for Maine. No one seemed to buy that argument.

Next we moved on to items of interest to the League: HP 804 and SP499

HP 804 (Joint Resolution Making Application To the Congress of The United States Calling a Convention of the States to Propose Amendments to the United States Constitution To Impose fiscal restraints, Limit Federal Power and Impose Term Limits)

A long list of people signed up to testify and there was a 6-1 ratio in favor of the Resolution. Note: We were surprised to find so much well-organized support for these measures. To learn more about the supporters see the links below.[i]

SP 499 (Joint Resolution Making Application To The Congress of The United States Calling A Constitutional Convention To Propose an Amendment to the United States Constitution to Require a Balanced Federal Budget and Further Fiscal Restraints)

Rep. Short and Rep. Crafts introduced the resolution and spoke about the need to fix the Federal Government, saying that we shouldn’t be afraid to do this. Since there was a packed house, the Committee Chair, stated that there would be a strict 3-minute rule for testimony. Despite that, Ken Quinn of Grassroots Citizens for Self Government (whom Rep. Crafts and Rep. Short called an expert on the topic) was given an hour and a half to speak. Mr. Quinn is apparently leading the charge throughout the land for a “meeting of states” – not a constitutional convention. He stated that whoever wrote the bill did it incorrectly and the wording would need to be amended. His extended testimony turned into a lecture on constitutional convention, Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Madison and state vs. federal powers. At one point, Rep. Evangelos interjected that he was hearing from all sorts of “arm-chair constitutional scholars” via email on this issue and so facts were thrown back and forth in a match between government history wonks.

Once Ken Quinn brought his testimony to a close, others could speak (it was after 4:30 by then) and the pro/con testifiers alternated with 5-4 ratio in favor. Those supporting the measure railed against our unfair federal government, and one woman even held up a torn $10 bill stating this was all the money she had left and hadn’t been able to pay this year’s or last year’s taxes. She demanded that the government has to get off her back. Meanwhile, her cell phone kept ringing – adding to the cacophony in the room.

Those in opposition included a district rep from the John Birch Society, an Attorney from Connecticut and the League, along with a citizen from Camden who spoke spontaneously (the “League of Voters got it right!” regarding what happens when cutbacks occur in times of crises). I was asked one question after testifying: Rep. Pickett questioned the statement in our testimony about deficit spending being admissible, in our opinion, in times of crises. “What about our $19 trillion deficit?”

The Attorney from Connecticut, Deborah Stevenson, testified testified because she was asked by friends – that is, she was not being paid. Her testimony was precise, interesting and focused, citing specifics of why we should proceed very cautiously when considering a Constitutional Convention. She noted that states have unlimited powers to rectify situations when we don’t want to deal with the Federal Government: we can tell them to take their $ and leave. She and the windy Ken Quinn agreed to return for a work session. Some members of the gallery were restless and objecting during her presentation (because she’s from away). It was enough of an interruption that Rep. Dore ask them to be polite and quiet. Questions from the Committee were xenophobic in nature – who was she & why did she come up from Connecticut for this?  Yipes, someone from away!

Meanwhile the pack of people there for HP956 were getting hungry because it was after 6pm. I headed home, waving “nite-nite” to Danielle Foxx, Legal Analyst extraordinaire from VLA Committee. At least I’ve made some friends this session – but I miss the bear bills & the good ol’ days of February and March!

 

 

[i] http://www.conventionofstates.com/; https://selfgovern.com/ & http://www.themainewire.com/2015/05/quinn-maine-joins-convention-states-movement/

 

We Want to Know: What is Going on with all the Closed-Door Discussions During “Public” Work Sessions?

By Helen Hanlon

We’ve seen several calls for caucus in public hearings before legislative committees this session. What’s the point of a public hearing if the discussion happens behind closed doors? Technically, a caucus is a group of legislators in the same chamber, same party: House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats. A cause meeting is where those groups get together to plan strategy and line up members to particular votes. Informally, in the context of legislative committees, legislators sometimes say, “let’s caucus” to mean, “let’s get together with others in our party to coordinate what we’re going to do next.”

Polly Ward, long time LWVME advocate, was surprised when not once but twice, a caucus was called during a hearing of the SLG Committee. She couldn’t recall ever seeing this before and, Polly being Polly, wanted an answer about this occurrence.

What’s up with these calls for caucus during State and Local Government Committee hearings? All the committees have been known to do this – it has become common practice. How does this practice square with Maine’s open meetings laws? We’d like to know, and no one seems too anxious to tell us. We’re still waiting for answers. Ann Luther, Chair of the LWVME Advocacy Comittee, got on the ball with calls and e-mails to the appropriate officials: no response (oh, they sent an apology for the delay in returning communication but NO information provided about the calls for committee caucus)!

However, some maybe not-so-subtle changes in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee were observed last week. During a hearing, one Representative said, “Let’s CAW… I mean talk among ourselves, I mean let’s go get a bottle of water next door.” Perhaps, just perhaps, the word may be out that Ann and Polly are on to something.

Then, last week, State House Legend Extraordinaire from Eagle Lake, Rep. John Martin extolled the benefits of institutional knowledge during his presentation of Term Limits Repeal legislation (LD182). He cited several outlandish instances where newbie legislators were downright dummkopfs totally unaware of the basic art of legislating. I betcha John Martin would know the answer about this caucus business.

Stay tuned…

 

LD 6 and a long day at the Statehouse

NOTE: LWVME follows several bills through the Maine Legislature each session. Members attend public hearings, work sessions and occasionally offer testimony.

 

By Polly Ward

Helen Hanlon and I attended the work session for the Committee on State & Local Government (SLG) on February 11. We were primarily interested in LD 6, Resolve, To Implement Recommendations of the Government Oversight Committee To Strengthen the Ethics Practices and Procedures for Executive Branch Employees.

The process today was particularly interesting and somewhat unusual. We sat through a long public hearing on naming the State dog and a couple of other bills before the work session convened. Members immediately went into caucus, R’s and D’s separately. When they returned, they moved the first bill on the work session calendar (LD 6) to last. Following the other 3 bills on the work session agenda, they finally addressed LD 6. Beth Ashcroft was there from the Government Oversight Committee. SLG members asked a few questions and then went into caucus again. When they came back, an Ought to Pass (OTP) motion was made. There were 7 votes for the motion, 4 against and 2 members were absent. With one exception and one independent voting for the OTP motion, the votes were strictly along party lines. They are awaiting a fiscal note and have reserved the right to bring the bill back if they have concerns about the fiscal note.

An interesting day but frustrating, too, because who knows what discussions happen behind closed doors. We attend these public hearings and work sessions so we can monitor the process and be involved in legislative decision-making. Closed door caucuses separate legislators from the public and deter parties from working together — inhibiting public dialog and transparent decision-making. But we will continue to attend public hearings and work sessions to shine a light on the process and advocate for issues that fall under our mission.

Public Hearings and Work Sessions are held at the Statehouse in Augusta and are open to the public. Look for anyone wearing a League of Women Voters button and be sure to say hello.