The largest voting block in Maine isn’t Democrats or Republicans. It’s unenrolled voters. While they could be considered independent, it largely means voters not affiliated with any one party.
The latest voter registration numbers, from September of last year, largely reflect long term trends in Maine. Around 35% of voters are unenrolled, 33% Democrat, and 27% Republican. While these numbers can change from one election to the next, this has largely been the case. Around a third, a third, and a third.
As a proud Democrat, and a progressive one at that, I am in strong support of unenrolled voters or independents being able to vote in our primary elections. Some of my colleagues think that allowing those who are unenrolled to vote in a Democratic Primary Election would somehow harm Democratic candidates or the party itself. I strongly disagree.
As a Democrat, I believe in expanding voting rights and access. Increasing voter participation and citizen engagement in the political process is a core democratic value. It’s in our party platform and as a party, we oftentimes talk about respecting the will of the voters and protecting our democratic institutions. We either want participation or we don’t. We either want to expand voting rights or we don’t. Picking and choosing makes us look indecisive and goes against our core beliefs. It’s because I’m a Democrat that I support opening up our primary, not in spite of. If you support automatic voter registration, early voting, Ranked Choice Voting, and other electoral reforms to improve our political system to make it easier not harder to vote, then you should consider supporting open primaries as well.
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, ‘…the reality is that many unaffiliated voters lean strongly toward on side. If a party wants to broaden its reach for the general election, allowing independents to cast ballots in primaries could help with both party building and boosting turnout.”
Welcoming unenrolled voters into our big tent party will ultimately yield more benefits in electoral outcomes than if we continue to shun them from participating. Voter turnout is around 3%-10% on average higher in states that opened up their primaries versus states that have closed primaries.
Maine is the outlier in the entire country when it comes to how we treat our unenrolled neighbors. Under current law, unenrolled voters can only participate in a partisan primary if they register to vote or enroll in that particular political party. Individuals must wait 90 days before unenrolling. Maine is one of less than a dozen states with closed primaries. The rest of the country has some form of open primary system. This includes our New England neighbors New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. They must be on to something.
Moreover, we have individuals like U.S. Senator Angus King and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders who I would consider Democrats, but instead they choose to claim the independent title. Democrats back both of them consistently in their elections and in most cases don’t mount serious contenders against them because they caucus with the Democrats and vote reliably Democrat in their positions. This is not to say every independent is a Democrat though. There are plenty of conservative leaning independents as well. This example is to illustrate that not all ‘independents’ are moderate and they can’t be put into a box.
I am the lead co-sponsor to Rep. Kent Ackley’s open primaries bill. He is an independent who is my co-chair for the newly formed Democracy Reform Caucus we founded together. The bill is LD 211, An Act To Open Maine's Primaries and Permit Unenrolled Voters To Cast Ballots in Primary Elections. His bill is a common-sense measure that seeks to create semi-open primaries. Semi-open primaries refers to a system where those who are not enrolled in a political party can select which party to vote in during the Primary Election without having to actually register in that party. This allowance would not be for those already enrolled in a political party. So, we aren’t opening up Democratic Primaries to Republicans and we aren’t opening up Republican Primaries to Democrats. This is semi-open, just allowing unenrolled voters to vote in the primary of their choosing.
In Maine, polling has shown that between 75-80% of Maine voters support moving to a semi-open primary. With our Senate district reflecting the very same breakdown of party affiliation as the statewide numbers, an entire third of my constituents cannot participate in an election they help pay for. Ahead of 2020, I think any voter wishing to vote Democratic should be encouraged and welcomed with open arms. Every citizen deserves a right to vote in our elections, not just ones dictated by political parties.
Justin Chenette is serving his second term in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, and a member of the Environment & Natural Resources Committee. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is the Marketing Coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, Marketing Director of the Scamman/Valentino Real Estate Team, and is Vice President of Saco Main Street. Follow updates at www.JustinChenette.com
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco