AUGUSTA — The Republican presidential caucuses that ended with controversy last month could be Maine’s last.

Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, has proposed a change in state law from the traditional caucus system to a conventional presidential primary election, with voting booths and counting machines. Under Raye’s plan, the state’s presidential primary would be held one week after New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, starting in 2016.

Raye proposed the change in the wake of the bungled Republican caucus process, which drew national attention and angered party members, especially in Raye’s home district in Washington County.

“For a lot of people, the caucuses this year crystallized support for a presidential primary,” Raye said Thursday.

The Maine Republican Party declared Mitt Romney the winner of the preference poll held through local caucuses. But the party did a recount after members in Washington County complained that they were excluded because a snowstorm had delayed their caucus on Feb. 11, the day the results were announced.

Votes from other parts of the state were mistakenly left out of the count, and some of the local results were entered incorrectly in the official tally.

Romney remained the winner in the end, although the problems led Ron Paul’s supporters and conservatives across the country to accuse party leaders of manipulating the results.

Raye’s bill calls for standard primary elections in contested presidential primaries. Delegates to the parties’ national conventions would be allocated to the top candidates in proportion with the voting results, unless the parties decided otherwise.

Raye said he wants the primary to be held on the first Tuesday after the New Hampshire primary, which was held Jan. 10 this year. New Hampshire state law requires its primary be the first in the nation. Iowa holds a caucus the week before the New Hampshire primary.

Raye said the timing would increase the likelihood that candidates would see Maine’s vote as important. “I do think it’s important to be early in the process,” he said.

Raye’s bill has bipartisan support. House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, and House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, are co-sponsors.

“I think it’s a conversation worth having,” Cain said. While caucuses and primaries have their own advantages, she said, “what you really want to do is maximize participation.”

Not everyone likes the idea. Past efforts to drop the caucus system have failed, except for a temporary switch to primaries years ago.

Supporters of the caucus system say they like the tradition of gathering to compare candidates, and they like the low cost. Caucuses, paid for by the parties, are far less expensive than special statewide elections, paid for by taxpayers.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, said the caucuses allow for lively debates that can’t happen in a voting booth

“You have a direct dialogue with voters,” he said.

Patrick also objected to the bill’s introduction at the end of a short legislative session, rather than next year, when there is more time to talk about it.

“Where is the emergency?” he said. “Why aren’t we working on the emergency we have in the state of Maine right now — jobs?”

Raye said he introduced the bill now because this is his last session and he wants to lead the effort. He is running for the U.S. House in Maine’s 2nd district.

Raye said he doesn’t know what a primary would cost the state but he is sure the change would be worth it.

“My perspective on that is, you can’t put a price tag on democracy,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office said it’s not clear what another statewide election would cost.

Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party and the man who took most of the blame for the caucus problems last month, said he has no preference between caucuses or primaries. But, he said, the Legislature voted against a primary when he was a member because it would have cost $1 million to $2 million.

“It was a lot of money,” he said. “That will be the argument against it.”

John Richardson — 620-7016

[email protected]

 

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