Maine’s Democratic Caucus Revives Primary Debate

Amidst the excitement for record turnouts in Maine’s Democrat caucuses on March 6th were feelings of frustration and disappointment when lengthy delays prevented many voters from participating in the process. While the majority of states hold presidential primaries, Maine is among the few states that currently rely solely on the caucus system, where meetings are arranged by either the state or political party and voters openly show support for candidates by raising their hands or breaking into groups.

With nearly 46,000 Democrats and 18,000 Republicans caucusing statewide, both political parties experienced high voter turnouts. Maine’s Republican Party, however, followed a different format than in previous years, by consolidating the meetings into 22 locations and allowing voters to cast secret ballots without participating in the full caucus program. The Democratic caucus, on the other hand, held 533 caucuses at more than 400 locations and was ultimately forced to accept thousands of absentee ballots due to voting and registration challenges.

While many caucus locations ran smoothly, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling referred to the Portland caucus as “an organizational nightmare.” Despite having more volunteers than previous years, the Portland City Clerk’s Office experienced timely delays and challenges when nearly half of the 4,000 participating voters were there to register for the first time. Participants stood outside Deering High School, the caucus site, for three to four hours in a line that stretched almost a half mile. Strimling expressed his frustration with the process explaining, “We should be celebrating the great candidates that were on the ballot. Instead, we’re talking about folks who may have gone home because they didn’t have an opportunity to vote or who weren’t able to get registered to vote.”

Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland renewed the caucus v. primary debate after acknowledging Maine “can’t have a system that turns away voters”. He quickly picked up bipartisan support from legislative leaders to introduce a bill to switch back to a presidential primary process. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport explained, “This isn’t Republican or Democrat, this is about making sure that people have the opportunity to cast their ballot. The primary process is a much easier process for them to be able to do that.”