Open Primaries and Open Primaries Maine launched an effort in 2017 to enact semi-open primaries legislation. It passed after a multi-year campaign in June 2021. This report will shed light on this multi-year process and offer political reform advocates ideas and practical lessons learned that can be useful in other venues:
Trust: Open Primaries staff spent several years on the ground in the state, building a presence and developing relationships. Similarly, Open Primaries Maine was constructed exclusively with local leaders who had deep roots in Maine and were known to/had relations with the legislature and political class.
Bill Sponsors: Initial bill lead sponsor and supporters were recruited from Maine’s unusual class of independent legislators. It was insufficient. A new lead sponsor, Chloe Maxmin, emerged from within the majority Democratic Party. She joined with a co- sponsor with similar standing in the minority Republican caucus. That bipartisan formula was critical, as it provided a bulwark against the claim the bill was being used to advantage one party over the other. The youth of both lead sponsors was also a key asset as both were seen as emerging leaders in their respective parties that needed their respective caucasus’ support. It also meant they were able to offer a significant amount of energy, connectivity and willingness to prioritize and work their caucuses for support.
Relation to other reforms: Reform was not new to Maine. Maine has recently adopted several new election reforms, from ranked choice voting to automatic voter registration. These reforms, which were developed by local campaigns, have helped create a legitimacy and receptiveness to new reform conversations both within and outside the legislature.
Collaboration inside the legislature: The development of open primaries legislation was not restricted to the lead sponsor and leadership of her caucus. It was developed with input from members of both the Republican and Democratic Party caucuses through a deliberative process that included multiple amendments. That process, which took opponent’s objections seriously, created a broad class of stakeholders and helped convert numerous opponents into supporters.
Collaboration outside the legislature: The Open Primaries and Maine Open Primaries teams were very complimentary-the national team brought a high level of understanding of the issues and experience of building coalitions/campaigns and stakeholders on it and the local team brought an understanding of the state’s legislative/political climate as well as extensive local relationships. The key to success, however, was not staying in our lanes. Both teams interacted on a regular basis to question each other and develop a grounded strategic plan.
Framing: From the beginning, this campaign was framed as a voting rights, pro democracy campaign. We did not use language such as fighting hyper- partisanship or anti-party. The campaign was framed as one of fundamental fairness-giving Maine’s sizable population of independent voters the right to vote.
Local validators: Every supporter of the bill, from within the legislature and from the public at large, was put to work. Every member of the legislature was asked to write an op-ed or letter in support and to recruit other members of their caucus. Every member of the public was asked to write articles and letters, join organized public forums to discuss the bill and post on social media. Much of that outreach was organized in a targeted way by the campaign-i.e. letters from the public to papers in districts where supporting members needed to be recruited, outreach to relevant committee chairs by members etc. Supporting organizations weren’t just recruited; the campaign worked to develop their organizational positions on the issue and their prioritization of the issues. Prime example is the ongoing development of the LWV from a position of “neither for nor against” open primaries to one of support, and then further to making open primaries their lead priority and committing substantial resources to it.
Long game: The successful campaign to enact open primaries in Maine took several years to complete. That was anticipated. We had to build a fertile climate within and outside the legislature to allow a bill for open primaries to succeed. Accepting the timeline required for enacting lasting reform allowed us to engage in a series of activities that gave Mainers ownership of the reform in a way that will guard against future attempts to alter or repeal it.