AUGUSTA — The years-long push to open Maine’s primary elections to unenrolled voters took another major step forward in the Legislature on Wednesday, boosted by broad support among members of both parties.

The Maine House voted 92-52 Wednesday to give initial approval to a bill that would allow unenrolled or independent voters to cast ballots in primary elections without having to join the party. The House vote came one day after the Senate voted 27-7 in support of the bill, which would take effect in the 2024 elections.

The House late Wednesday in a 76-55 vote also passed a bill that would prohibit a foreign government from contributing to a campaign for or against a citizen-initiated referendum or ballot question in Maine.

The House also approved a bill that would require employers to give workers three paid hours off from work on Election Day so they could vote. The underlying bill, which the House amended, was defeated by the state Senate in May, when 19 of the 35 members voted against it.

While additional votes are still necessary on the open primary bill, the lopsided tallies in both chambers suggest the bill, L.D. 231, is headed for final passage in what would be a major win for supporters, who have been pushing to open up Maine’s primary elections for years. The measure has garnered support from liberal, conservative and moderate lawmakers, signaling a major shift on the issue during the past two years.

“That’s very exciting because, oftentimes, voter reform efforts can be partisan, but that’s not the case here,” said Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, lead sponsor of the measure.

Under current law, unenrolled or independent voters can cast ballots in a primary election, but only if they register with that particular party. They are then prevented from withdrawing from the party for at least three months.

The bill moving through the Legislature would create “semi-open” primaries, which allow unenrolled voters – who currently account for roughly one-third of all registered voters in Maine – to cast ballots in one party’s primary each election without having to join the party, starting with the 2024 elections.

The bill would not change the current requirement that voters who are members of a party must change their registration at least 15 days prior to an election in order to participate in another party’s primary, caucus or convention.

Roughly 32 percent of registered voters in Maine were unenrolled as of last November while 36 percent were registered as Democrats, 28 percent as Republicans and 4 percent as Green Independents.

Open primary bills have failed in the face of both Democratic and Republican opposition in each of the three previous Legislatures. But Wednesday’s debate in the House highlighted how attitudes have shifted as a broad cross section of rural, urban, Republican, Democratic and independent lawmakers spoke in support of the measure.

Fourteen Republicans joined 73 Democrats, all four independents and one Libertarian in supporting the bill Wednesday.

“Almost a third of voters cannot participate currently in the primary process,” said Rep. Christopher Caiazzo, D-Scarborough. “This is about making sure every Mainer can vote in every election.”

Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, said allowing independent voters to participate in party primaries might be a way to encourage more bipartisanship.

“I think the way politics is going, it kinda, probably might be time for this,” Tuell said.

Opponents, meanwhile, said the measure was unnecessary because unenrolled voters can already cast a ballot in a primary if they enroll in a party, including on the day of an election. Those voters can then withdraw from the party three months later.

“There is no right being denied, there is no one being left out,” said Rep. Jeffery Hanley, R-Pittston. “All you need to do is join the party of your choice.”

Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has yet to say where she stands on the current bill to create semi-open primaries in Maine. Secretary of State Shenna Bellows testified neither for nor against the bill during a committee hearing, but said her office understands the reasons behind the initiative and stands ready to implement the change, if it becomes law.

In other action Wednesday the House approved a bill that would ban aerial application of the herbicide glyphosate, the primary active ingredient in Round-Up, in forest management. The 77-53 vote follows approval of the same bill in the Senate earlier this week.

The bill to ban foreign governments from contributing to ballot question campaigns is largely aimed at Hydro-Quebec, the power producer owned by the government of Quebec, which has spent millions in support of New England Clean Energy Connect, a powerline expansion through northern Maine being built by Central Maine Power, which is owned by a Spanish parent company.

The bill has supporters and opponents in both parties and was sponsored by state Sen. Richard Bennet, R-Oxford, who has been a staunch opponent of the transmission line project. The measure still faces an uncertain outcome as Mills, like her Republican predecessor Gov. Paul LePage, has been an advocate for the expansion.


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