AUGUSTA — Maine Democrats have a ticket to the big dance on March 3 as they join 13 other “Super Tuesday” states likely to narrow the large field of presidential contenders.

While the state has been in play during previous presidential nomination contests, Maine is among the earliest batch of primaries or caucuses in 2020.

This year also marks Maine’s transition to presidential primary elections, a shift aimed at both encouraging broader participation and avoiding the confusion that marred Maine’s 2016 caucuses and delayed results from Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus last week.

“We are anticipating a huge turnout, so we are very excited about it,” said Kathleen Marra, chairwoman of the Maine Democratic Party. “It’s going to make voting easy and accessible to everyone.”

Maine is among 14 states plus one U.S. territory participating in the March 3 presidential primaries, dubbed “Super Tuesday.”

Super Tuesday follows nominating contests in just four early-voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. And the participating states collectively account for nearly half of the U.S. population and one-third of the delegates available to Democratic presidential nominees.

Technically speaking, both registered Democrats and Republicans in Maine will be able to cast their votes for presidential nominees. But while the Democratic ballot will feature 12 names – 10 of which are still in the race – Republican voters will only have a single choice: President Trump. Ranked-choice voting will not be used in the presidential primary.

All registered voters can cast ballots in the statewide referendum on whether to eliminate religious and philosophic exemptions to mandatory childhood vaccinations.

Participation in the Super Tuesday primary means that Maine – long accustomed to residing in New Hampshire’s political shadow during presidential elections – could draw candidates and national media attention to the state. How much time and attention candidates will devote to Maine is anyone’s guess, however, because Super Tuesday also includes delegate-rich states such as California, Texas, North Carolina and Virginia.

“We certainly are not the biggest delegate pile, that’s for sure, and there are a lot of states going on Super Tuesday,” said Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine. “That being said, I think it’s a strong possibility that the nomination is not going to be wrapped up by Super Tuesday, And given that, I think it’s highly likely we will have some candidates come to Maine.”

PROBLEMS IN 2016

Maine uses both primaries and caucuses – and continues to hold party-organizing caucuses – but hasn’t held a presidential primary in 20 years.

After years of on-again, off-again debate on the merits of each system, the push to switch back to presidential primaries gained traction after numerous caucus locations experienced problems during the 2016 nominating process.

At Portland’s Democratic caucus, for instance, thousands of people waited in line in the cold for up to four hours to voice their preferences for either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. Local party leaders eventually opted to allow those waiting to fill out paper ballots rather than participate in the traditional, hourslong, town meeting-style caucus in which advocates for candidates make their pitches to the crowd.

Among the first to call for dropping caucuses was former Portland Sen. Justin Alfond, a Democrat who was then Senate minority leader. In fact, Alfond announced plans to introduce legislation before that chaotic caucus day was even done, after spending hours amid the long lines and frustrated participants at Portland’s Deering High School.

“Maine has this incredible history of voters wanting to come out and participate,” Alfond said last week. “And that is a great thing. But as we saw in 2016 … it was just a complete failure, so I thought maybe it was time that we scrapped the caucuses.”

Alfond’s bill received bipartisan support – even landing an endorsement from Republican Gov. Paul LePage – but was watered down to, instead, direct Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap to study the costs and logistics of switching. Lawmakers accepted Dunlap’s subsequent recommendations and passed a presidential primary bill during the final hours of last year’s legislative session.

“I am so excited and I am hearing from so many people,” Alfond said. “We know people’s lives are busy and Mainers want to participate in every election. But they want to show up, they want to vote, and they want to leave.”

The switch to a statewide presidential primary election has created more work for the municipal clerks that run elections and the Secretary of State’s Office. While clerks attended caucuses to register new participants, the events were run by the local parties.

Primaries also cost the state substantially more – somewhere between $140,000 and $150,000, most of which pays for printing hundreds of thousands of official ballots. In Alfond’s view, the additional money is worth it.

“You can’t put a price on free and fair elections, and access is really key to free and fair elections,” he said.

Logistically speaking, a primary is just another election and “and we know how to run an election,” Dunlap said.

But even deciding how many ballots to distribute involved some educated guesswork.

“It’s hard to say since it’s been so long since we’ve done one,” Dunlap said of presidential primaries. “In terms of turnout, I’d say it will probably be moderate. I wouldn’t expect it to be turnout like during the presidential election, which is always a large turnout.”

Holding a primary election in Maine in March comes with inherent weather risks. But Dunlap said the timing was intended “to make Maine relevant” in the national competition.

A NATIONAL TREND

States around the country have been transitioning from caucuses to primaries. And that trend is likely to continue following last week’s debacle in Iowa, where vote tallies were delayed for days because of the failed implementation of a vote-reporting application.

Maine is one of nine states that held caucuses in 2016 but will stage presidential primaries in 2020.

Following the 2016 election, the Democratic National Committee encouraged caucus states to switch to presidential primaries as part of the “reforms” aimed at easing tensions between the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton camps of the party.

Caitlin Jewitt, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech and author of the 2019 book “The Primary Rules: Parties, Voters, and Presidential Nominations,” said there are pluses and minuses to both systems.

“A primary is generally seen as better in that it allows more participation because voters can stop by at any time while polls are open and cast a secret ballot” rather than sit through hours of speeches and party business at caucuses, Jewitt said.

“But you do lose the strengthening of the local party organization,” Jewitt added. “That was one benefit of the caucus, to draw voters into the party and make them a part of the process.”

In Maine’s case, Jewitt said the state could see a few candidates pay campaign visits. Factors that could play against Maine, however, are the state’s small number of delegates compared to other Super Tuesday battlegrounds like California and Texas, as well as its proximity to Sen. Sanders’ home state of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s home of Massachusetts.

UMaine’s Brewer said he won’t be surprised to see at least the top four current contenders – Sanders, Warren, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Vice President Joe Biden – as well as former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg swing through the state.

Maine has already seen some early-primary action from Democratic contenders.

Sanders and Buttigieg both delivered speeches in Portland over the summer. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and author Marianne Williamson also campaigned in Maine before ending their respective bids for the nomination.

And last month, Bloomberg stumped in Maine as his campaign focuses on Super Tuesday states rather than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

“I plan to win in this state,” Bloomberg told about 200 people crammed into his Scarborough campaign office. “We need to nominate someone who will give us the best shot of winning here and in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio and Florida. We’ve just got to beat Donald Trump.”

With very little public polling done in Maine, it’s difficult to say which candidate is leading the pack. Sanders defeated Clinton by a landslide – 64 percent to 36 percent – during the 2016 Maine caucuses but is competing with nearly a dozen other contenders this year.

“It’s a large field,” said Marra, chairwoman of the state party. “I think most people have settled on a candidate, but it is hard to tell. As I’ve been saying, this is not just an election, it’s a movement. This is the start of something.”

CAUCUSES STILL HAVE A ROLE

Maine’s switch to a presidential primary doesn’t mean the death of the caucus system, however. In fact, local caucuses are still an important part of the political process in the state.

That’s a point Marra and other state Democratic leaders have been making for weeks as they remind party loyalists – and any other registered Democrats – about local caucuses being held around the state on March 8. Republicans held municipal caucuses in January and February.

Under the banner “Rise and Organize,” Democrats will gather at municipal caucuses held in hundreds of town halls, schools and other locations to elect local and county party leaders. Municipal caucuses are also the time when Democrats elect delegates to the party’s state convention in May.

For her part, Marra said she wouldn’t be chairwoman today had she not been elected to a local party position during caucuses two years ago.

“What I realized in 2016 is voting is not enough … and caucuses are the other part of that,” Marra said. “The primary is the voting part, and that’s very important. But caucusing is where you learn what else you can do.”

Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.