Caucusing for a presidential primary? Get in line

The Donald and The Bern are the big winners in New Hampshire. With Maine’s turn approaching, who are you voting for? And how?

The answer to those questions isn’t as simple as you would hope. Here in Maine, if you are a Democrat, 12 percent of your vote is already spoken for: five of your party officials get first-class, express tickets to the Democratic National Convention as superdelegates. They can vote for whomever they want. Your opinion might sway them, or it might not.

Votes are counted at an Iowa caucus precinct. Kate Linthicum | Los Angeles Times | TNS

Votes are counted at an Iowa caucus precinct. Kate Linthicum | Los Angeles Times | TNS

For the 80-something percent of convention votes you can influence, you will need to get in line. Literally. In order to be counted, you will need to publicly huddle in groups declaring support for Bernie or Hillary. Anonymity is apparently anathema to the Dems.

Meanwhile, the GOP is set to hold regional super-caucuses. Rick Bennett and Jason Savage, the party’s chair and director respectively, are to be commended for leading the effort to build a system that clearly and definitively allocates the votes of Maine’s delegates to the national convention. At least for the first round of votes.

Their process successfully incorporates a hallmark of American democracy: the secret ballot. Unlike the Democrats, Republicans need not stand in the public square and declare their allegiance. Thus no one will know the identity of that one guy voting for Jim Gilmore.

Both parties provide for absentees, with Republicans limiting the ability to vote absentee to those who presently or previously served their country. And both parties will require the assistance of municipal officials on back-to-back days — Saturday and Sunday — in order to register unenrolled voters who wish to participate.

Shouldn’t this process lead us all to ask: why the heck do we do it this way? After all, Maine Democrats were expecting to go to the polls for a primary in the 2nd Congressional District until Joe Baldacci dropped out. 2012 saw big primary battles in both parties to replace Olympia Snowe. And who could forget 2010, when a heavily outspent mayor cruised past six opponents at the ballot box to become the GOP nominee for governor?

So I’ll ask again: why do we hold primary elections for all offices except president? There are normally one of two answers given: love or money.

The “love” argument is straightforward. Choosing a party’s nominee is inherently a function of a political party. While a caucus may make it more difficult for some to voice their opinion, the true party faithful — better motivated and organized — will brave it all for a chance their preferred candidate will be selected. It provides an opportunity for the party to have a back-and-forth where members discuss candidates and then decide.

Ultimately, the theory goes, individuals “love” their party and do the work for its candidates up and down the ticket. Therefore, while a caucus may narrow the electorate, it does so in a way that pays dividends for the party writ large by keeping activists engaged. You just have to hope it doesn’t go awry with arcane rules and straw-polls.

That argument was offered by several people in response to former state Sen. Kevin Raye’s bill to create a presidential primary back in 2012. If you accept the premise, why not do away with primaries for other offices? Wouldn’t the ability for party faithful to consider and select a gubernatorial candidate — or congressional candidate, or Senate candidate — provide those same benefits?

The other argument is “money;” essentially, a primary would cost too much. Maybe $1 million every 4 years. Of course, we are already paying for a primary every two years, albeit in June — can we find a way to hold those elections concurrently? And, lest we forget, Maine voters already approved a program — so-called “Clean Elections” — which, at full participation, would’ve cost $30 million in 2010.

If we can’t find a way to move our existing primary, maybe we consider a better use of those “Clean Election” tax dollars. Maybe instead of $30,000 every two years for lawn signs in each State House race, we could reduce it to $25,000. That would give us $1.5 million back every four years; more than enough to hold a primary for president. If you couple it with filing fees from campaigns raising hundreds of millions of dollars, we could easily make it work without needing to go back to the continually tapped well known as the “Maine taxpayer.”

There are several viable roads that lead to a presidential primary for Maine voters. It is time we demand the Legislature take one of them.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.