As Maine legislators consider replacing caucuses with presidential primaries, we should remember what happened the last time caucuses were held.
My own memories are vivid.
When I arrived at Bangor High School for the 2016 Democratic caucuses, there were long lines and many people milling about.
On the positive side, there was a sense of excitement. But, while certainly those organizing the caucus did their best, there were also problems. The caucus started late and went on so long that some had to leave. An elderly woman I sat near was faltering among the crowds and she and her daughter departed the caucus before the final count.
The entire process was far from the romanticized view of caucus as exemplifying democratic conversation among citizens, with give and take about the candidates.
Groups supporting the different candidates didn’t interact in a meaningful way. One person who gave a speech spoke disparaging about the candidate she opposed, mixing in fact and fiction. Another speaker, then-Attorney General Janet Mills, received some boos when she advocated for the candidate of her choice.
And what happened in Portland was quite messy. With very long lines and delays, the Democratic caucus was delayed by hours. Some checked in, voted by absentee ballot and left before the caucus started.
As Jill Barkley, Portland’s Democratic Caucus Chair recently testified to the Maine Legislature, “We thought we’d be able to start caucusing at 3 p.m. and be done by 5 p.m. When all was said and done, we weren’t able to start caucusing until 6:30 p.m.”
Big crowds at caucuses are no guarantee that results are representative.
As Barkley noted, “At the end of the day, more than 4,000 people voted in the 2016 Portland Democratic caucus, making it the highest turnout in history. Still, because of the circumstances, voters were disenfranchised because of our caucus system. Even if the caucus had gone perfectly according to plan, the day would have lasted about four hours.”
A four-hour process doesn’t work for a lot of folks. Some work at that time. Others have childcare responsibilities. It’s harder for individuals with disabilities. And caucuses can just be inconvenient, given everything going on in people’s lives.
Thus it was not surprising that Maine turnout for the 2016 caucuses was rather low, despite both parties having competitive nomination contests. Only 7 percent of enrolled Republicans participated in their regional caucuses. Only 15 percent of enrolled Democrats participated in municipal ones. In 2000, the last time Maine had a presidential primary, two and a half times more people participated.
Low turnout can mean that caucus-goers are unrepresentative of people in their party. In 2016, Nebraska and Washington both had caucuses and primaries. One candidate won these caucuses and another won the primaries. Nebraska’s Democratic caucus turnout was about 40 percent of the primary turnout, and in Washington, Democratic caucus turnout was less than 30 percent of primary turnout.
Maine legislators are considering three bills to move from presidential caucuses to primaries. Lots of details remain to be worked out.
Professor Josh Putnam, an expert on presidential selection, calls LD 1626 “the most streamlined” of the three presidential primary bills. Under its provisions, Maine would hold presidential primaries in early March along with many other states, on Super Tuesday.
Besides determining timing, if unenrolled voters could participate in primaries and whether ranked-choice voting will be used, Maine legislators need to consider the cost.
Washington state, which is ending its caucus, will have all votes cast by mail, a less expensive option than mostly in-person primary voting.
Other states, including Nebraska, Minnesota, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho are also switching from caucuses to primaries. If Maine doesn’t change, it will be one of only six states holding presidential caucuses in 2020.
Maine has long been a leader in voter participation. But our continued use of caucuses undermines citizens’ ability to choose. It’s time for the Legislature to support presidential primaries.