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What to know about Maine's primary elections ahead of Super Tuesday

A vote sign and American flag are shown outside a Michigan primary election location in Dearborn, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.
Paul Sancya
A vote sign and American flag are shown outside a Michigan primary election location in Dearborn, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

Next Tuesday, voters in Maine and more than a dozen other states will cast ballots during the single-largest primary day of the 2024 elections.

By presidential primary standards, this year’s Super Tuesday contests are relatively anti-climactic because the Republican and Democratic tickets are pretty much set at this point. Absent some ground-shaking legal or political developments, the nation appears headed for a Biden-Trump rematch this November.

But electors are still at stake in Maine. And for the first time this year, thanks to Maine’s switch to a “semi-open” primary, independent voters can join the proverbial party without literally having to join a party.

So here’s a quick primer on the semi-open primary system, who can participate, which candidates are (and aren’t) on the ballot and why ranking your presidential picks on the Republican ballot really won’t matter this year.

What is a semi-open primary?

For decades, Maine’s presidential caucuses and primaries were only open to voters who officially joined (or enrolled in) that party. Independent voters were either excluded from the process or had to enroll in a party to cast a ballot.

But not anymore.

This year, unenrolled or independent voters can participate in either the Democratic or Republican primaries without having to sign up with the party. Unenrolled voters can only vote in one of the contests, however, so they’ll have to choose.

Maine is one of seven states with semi-open primaries allowing independents to participate without requiring enrollment in the party, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fifteen states allow all voters to participate in a primary of their choosing, 10 states run closed primaries and the rest have something in between, according to the NCSL.

The shift to semi-open primaries means that more than 270,000 Maine residents — or nearly 30% of all active registered voters in the state — now have an opportunity to participate in Tuesday’s presidential primary with no strings attached. Advocates of the shift argued that giving independents a voice in the primaries could lead to general election candidates with more widespread appeal.

It’s unclear how many unenrolled voters will cast ballots in Tuesday’s primaries given the noncompetitive nature of this year’s Democratic and Republican contests. We can often get a sense of voter engagement by looking at how many voters request absentee ballots since that has become such a popular way of voting in this state, particularly since the COVID pandemic. But as of Thursday evening, just under 5,000 unenrolled voters had requested absentee ballots — so only about 2% of the independent voting bloc in Maine.

Can Dems vote in the GOP primary or vice versa?

No, they can’t. Voters enrolled in a party can only cast ballots in that party’s primary.

Voters enrolled in a party can change their affiliation but the deadline to do so — at least 15 days before the primary election — has already passed for Super Tuesday.

Maine currently has five official parties: Democratic, Republican, Green Independent, Libertarian and No Labels. The Libertarian, Green Independent and No Labels parties did not request to hold presidential primaries in Maine this year, however. As a result, voters enrolled in those parties will not have a chance to vote on Tuesday unless they are participating in a special election for House District 122 in South Portland.

Is same-day voter registration available during a primary election?

Yes, Maine residents can register to vote at their polling place on Tuesday and cast a ballot.

Who is on the primary ballots?

The Democratic ballot has only two names: Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Dean B. Phillips. The latter is a Minnesota congressman who has yet to come close to Biden in the primary contests so far. There is also one declared Democratic write-in candidate: Stephen Lyons.

The Republican ballot, meanwhile, features five names: Ryan L. Binkley, Ron DeSantis, Nikki R. Haley, Vivek G. Ramaswamy and Donald J. Trump.

Only Trump and Haley are still seeking the GOP nomination as we head into Super Tuesday. But because ballots were printed weeks ago, and because none of the drop-outs asked to have their names removed before the printing, Maine’s Republican primary looks a lot more crowded than it actually is.

Haley hasn’t won a primary or caucus — even losing her native South Carolina, where she served as governor — but has pledged to stay in the race until at least Tuesday.

Trump’s name is still on Maine’s ballot despite Secretary of State Shenna Bellows declaring in December that he was ineligible to participate in the primary under the U.S. Constitution’s insurrection clause. At the time, Bellows suspended enforcement of her decision, thereby allowing Trump’s name to stay on the ballot, while the appeals process played out.

More than two months later, nothing has changed.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Feb. 8 in a Colorado case that also centered on the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and any role he played in the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol. But the court has yet to rule in the case as of Friday morning, despite the fact that Colorado is also holding primary elections on Tuesday.

In the seemingly unlikely scenario that the Supreme Court issues a last-minute ruling barring Trump from Tuesday’s primary, municipal clerks in Maine will be required to post notices at polling places and inside voting booths stating that any votes for Trump wouldn’t be counted.

Where were the primary campaigns?

In case you were worried that you somehow missed the rallies, stump speeches and campaign events in Maine leading up to the primaries ... you haven’t. Despite aligning with the other Super Tuesday states, Maine isn’t a major stop on the campaign map.

Haley’s campaign will hold a rally at the Portland Elks Lodge on Sunday night as part of a swing through New England, according to an event listing posted Thursday. But the campaign has yet to release any additional details. Haley’s campaign didn’t announce its state leadership team in Maine until a week before the primary; the DeSantis campaign, meanwhile, unveiled its local leadership in September.

Neither Trump nor Biden have made campaign stops in Maine, although the president did visit the state last fall to pay respects to victims, families and first responders involved in the Lewiston mass shootings.

And aside from his attorneys fighting to keep Trump on Maine’s ballot, the former president’s campaign has not had a high-profile presence in Maine to this point.

Is ranked-choice voting a factor?

Voters will still have the option of ranking the presidential candidates in order of preference, although it’ll largely be a symbolic exercise in this election.

Republican primary voters will see six choices (the five candidates plus a write-in option) even though Trump and Haley are the only two still in the mix. On the Democratic ballot, voters can rank Biden, Phillips and a write-in option.

However, Republican state party leaders have already made clear that they will only count the first vote when choosing Maine’s preferred GOP nominee. That’s because when it comes to presidential primaries, the parties decide how to allocate their delegates for the national conventions where nominees are formally chosen.

"Ranked-Choice Voting is widely opposed by voters in Maine, especially Republicans," Maine GOP Chairman Joel Stetkis said last fall. "Our party rules are clear, and we will only recognize the first round of primary election results under our delegate allocation rules."

State election officials have said that state law requires them to run a ranked-choice runoff if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote on the first tabulation. But unlike during the general election, parties are not obligated to use those ranked-choice results in a primary contest.

Why aren’t local and congressional candidates on the March 5 ballot?

The Super Tuesday primary is focused exclusively on the presidential contest. Maine will hold statewide primary elections on June 11 to choose party nominees for legislative and congressional races.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by State House correspondent Kevin Miller and chief political correspondent Steve Mistler, and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.