Saturday, February 9, 2019

Maine Committee Hearing Highlights Familiar Divisions in Caucus to Primary Shifts

Earlier this week the Maine legislative Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs heard testimony in response to the proposal to reestablish a presidential primary in the Pine Tree state. Heading into the hearing, the reporting indicated that costs would be the primary concern. Indeed, shifting from a caucus/convention system to a primary would mean the financial burden for funding a delegate selection event/presidential preference vote would switch from the state parties to the state and municipal governments.

And while the costs of any switch to a presidential primary were raised in the hearing, it was only part of a broader note of caution from some of those who testified. However, the overwhelming majority of those who weighed in supported the change, offering the benefits of increased participation as the chief reason for the state moving toward a primary election. Eleven of the 14 who offered testimony unconditionally favored the switch.

The resistance mainly came from Maine town clerks and registrars, those charged with actually administering elections in the state. One clerk, Christine Keller of Fairfield, argued that the proposed March presidential primary would add a high-profile election to an already busy time of the year for clerks whose duties extend beyond elections. Keller, though, was speaking on her behalf, not for all clerks in the state.

The Maine Town and City Clerks' Association provided a more measured and neutral official position, neither for nor against the reestablishment of a presidential primary. Yet, the group did share that over half its membership was against the move while only a bit more than a quarter of clerks in the state were expressly for switching to a presidential primary.

Those clerks for the shift echoed the sentiments of others in support: a primary would increase participation and help to ameliorate some of the logistical issues -- handicap accommodations, parking issues and long lines -- that drove discontent among caucusgoers in 2016.

However, that was contrasted with a list of potential problems the primary may create for clerks:
  1. the bad timing Keller noted during the height of activity for clerks
  2. the timing conflict with winter weather and any attendant logistical issues
  3. costs (and a suggestion to couple the presidential primary with the primaries for other offices in June)
  4. was 2016 a one-off event that voters may learn from for 2020 (and not wait to register on site)?
  5. previous low turnout presidential primaries when Maine had one.
  6. leaving the date of the primary up in the air as called for in LD 245 until late in the year prior to the presidential election
The costs remain the biggest hurdle to Maine having a presidential primary in 2020. Will the state provide money to municipalities from the general fund or will those municipalities be left holding the bill?

It does seem as if the clerks may get an alternative to the current legislation that will address if nothing else the uncertainty of the proposed primary date. Representatives from the office of the secretary of state noted in testimony to the committee that a bill was in the works that would definitively set the date for the second Tuesday in March (as it had been when Maine had a primary before).

In the meantime, LD 245 remains in the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs pending a future work session to potentially mark up and amend the bill.

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Related:
1/18/19: Maine Lost its Presidential Primary

2/1/19: Maine Decision to Re-Establish a Presidential Primary Option for 2020 Hinges on Money

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