How Maine’s new ‘semi-open’ primary elections will work in 2024

By Billy Kobin, Bangor Daily News Staff

Aug. 23’s Republican presidential debate is a reminder that the 2024 election is creeping up on voters in Maine and throughout the country.

For the first time, Maine will have semi-open primaries for presidential, congressional and state legislative elections, meaning unenrolled voters will have the option of choosing to vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries next year.

Here’s a rundown on how the change will work.

How did this open primary change come about?

The Maine Legislature passed a bill in 2022 to set up the semi-open primary system starting in 2024. The effort had bipartisan support as well backing from electoral reform groups such as the League of Women Voters.

What exactly is a semi-open primary?

The new system allows unenrolled voters to participate in party primaries without formally enrolling as a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green Independent, which are the four official parties in Maine right now.

Before lawmakers approved the change, unenrolled Maine voters could vote in primaries by enrolling in a party on Election Day. If they wanted to switch back to being unenrolled, they had to wait at least three months to leave their new party.

Voters enrolled in a party have to use that party’s ballot and choose from its slate of candidates. That is the difference between Maine’s semi-open primary system and the truly open primaries in several other states that allow voters to cross over and vote for any candidate, regardless of their party registration.

The party ballot requested by a voter will be public record, and the legislation creating the semi-open primary system aimed to prevent voters from unenrolling from a major party in order to vote in a different party’s primary. That’s because it was similar to the existing law prohibiting voters who switch party registration within 15 days of a primary from voting in that election.

More than two dozen states have some form of open or semi-open primaries, with six other states — including neighboring New Hampshire — having similar rules to Maine’s new system, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

How many unenrolled voters does Maine have?

The change to a semi-open primary system has significance in Maine, as nearly three in 10 voters are unenrolled.

The latest available data from the Maine secretary of state’s office is from last November and lists nearly 266,000 unenrolled voters out of 929,000 total registered voters in the state, with 345,000 Democrats and 280,000 Republicans. The Maine Green Independent Party counted fewer than 37,000 voters, and the Libertarian Party had just 1,200 voters, per the data.

When are Maine’s 2024 presidential primary and state primary elections?

Maine’s presidential primary is scheduled for March 5, 2024, also known as “Super Tuesday,” with more than a dozen states also holding primaries that day. 

The primary for other federal, state and county offices in Maine is set for June 11, 2024, and the 2024 general election will occur Nov. 5.

What’s the deal with No Labels?

No Labels, a centrist advocacy group that is trying to morph into a political party, is not officially recognized in Maine yet but is seeking 2024 ballot access here and in other states. 

Its activity here has been controversial. Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the group in May after receiving complaints that people who assumed they had simply signed a petition were actually enrolled in No Labels. 

Bellows’ office also mailed notices to the 6,000 or so new No Labels members here to ensure they meant to join the party. That could prohibit them from participating in Maine’s 2024 Republican and Democratic primaries, because they are only open to the members of each party and the aforementioned unenrolled voters.

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