Chaos at the Caucuses

Has the time come for Mainers to rethink the way they nominate the president?


Maine and New Hampshire are similar in many ways: They’re neighbors with a shared New England colonial legacy, they’re largely rural and white, and they have almost identically sized populations. But when it comes to nominating the leader of the free world, the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation primary usually gets all the attention from the candidates, media, and punditry. Maine’s caucuses usually go almost entirely unnoticed both here and away.

But this year, things were different. With the Republican nomination still up for grabs — and establishment favorite Mitt Romney trying to break a three-state losing streak — the Maine party’s caucus found itself in the national spotlight. Romney and his idiosyncratic rival Ron Paul both showed up in the Pine Tree State, each hoping for a symbolic victory in the February 11 caucus that would define the national media narrative for the seventeen days before the next scheduled primaries. The networks sent their national correspondents to the Sanford caucus (visited by both candidates) and then the Portland hotel where Maine GOP chair Charlie Webster was to announce a victor.

Mitt Romney, Webster declared, was the official victor, having defeated Ron Paul by 194 votes. The frontrunner’s losing streak had been broken. Paul had been denied the credence-building momentum of a first statewide victory. The wheels of democracy had turned, and the Republican base had made their preferences known.

Then things got ugly, embarrassing Webster and leaving many wondering if the time had come for the caucus system to be replaced. Senate President Kevin Raye — the second highest-ranking Republican elected official in the state — has since argued that switching to a primary would better serve Mainers and the democratic process, and put forward legislation to do so.

The “official” caucus results — 2,190 for Romney, 1,996 for Paul — turned out to be seriously flawed. Most obviously, they could not include returns from dozens of Maine communities that had scheduled their caucuses for after February 11, with some not meeting until well into March. Webster had said that everyone had been urged to caucus before February 11, and those that hadn’t had in effect chosen not to take part in the presidential preference poll. This came as a surprise to many town committees, who said they hadn’t received advice to this effect until well after they’d scheduled their meetings.

More controversially, the results also didn’t include those for much of Washington County, which had been forced to postpone its February 11 contest on account of a winter storm. County chair Chris Gardner was flabbergasted to later learn that Webster was to ignore the caucus’ presidential vote despite an act of nature. “Whether state party wants to or not, we’re going to count our votes,” he told Slate. “The state party can go ahead and stand by its old vote totals. It’ll be standing by totals that are wrong.” That their caucus-goers would vote for Paul over Romney by more than two-to-one only increased the sense of outrage.

Then various town and county committee members began noticing serious flaws in Webster’s tallies of those communities whose caucuses were counted. Most of Waldo County — which had caucused and submitted its results back on February 4 — was missing from the official count. So was the city of Waterville, which had voted on February 11. The results for Maine’s largest city, Portland, were reversed. Other communities’ reported results — including Brunswick, Bangor, Kennebunk, and Alton — didn’t add up mathematically on the official result list. Pressed for answers, Webster admitted to “clerical errors” and to emails reporting official caucus results winding up in a spam filter. Paul’s campaign cried foul, accusing the state party of manipulating the contest for Romney.

“I don’t think it was slanted, but there was total incompetence by the state committee’s staff,” says GOP state committee member Vic Berardelli, who supported a write-in candidate, Marco Rubio. “In my phone conversations with Charlie [Webster], he said, ‘We don’t have a big enough staff.’ I said, ‘It’s not a question of enough staff, but 
whoever was doing it was not doing it right. It was ineptly handled. I said, ‘Charlie, unless you’re the captain of an Italian cruise liner, you go down with your ship.’ ”

“To disenfranchise a whole county and parts of others simply to have a chance to be on national television on a Saturday night was just ridiculous,” says former GOP party chair Ted O’Meara, who managed independent Eliot Cutler’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. “They really looked like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. I don’t know what was going on, but it wasn’t about leadership.”

The problems appear to have extended down to the local level. Three people participated in the western Maine town of New Portland’s caucus. Mark Smith and his wife were the only ones who stayed throughout the proceedings, which were held at the North Anson middle school alongside those of many other Somerset County towns. As delegate chair and town chairperson respectively, they personally submitted the results to county chair Dena Worster. But when the statewide tally was later released, New Portland was missing altogether. “When we followed up, the county committee chair flatly stated that because our town clerk wasn’t there, our votes were null and void,” says Smith, who says he pressed Worster to turn them in. She eventually did, but with a fourth vote added (for Romney.) “When we asked about it, she could not provide an explanation.” Worster didn’t respond to our interview request. (The Maine GOP referred all of our questions to party executive director Michael Quatrano, but he also did not respond.)

Randy Hughes-King participated in the Bangor caucus and acted as an observer for the Andrew Ian Dodge for Senate campaign at other Penobscot County caucuses. He claims seeing a wide range of irregularities: a failure to certify participants’ party membership before the Bangor vote; inconsistent use of secret ballots (as opposed to a public show of hands) from town to town, and, in Alton, a town chair declaring “without a vote” that he would personally choose remaining delegates for the town, presumably to offset the four Paul supporters who had shown up at the caucus. “To figure out what really happened would require an investigative team,” Hughes-King says. “A fundamental part of the American process has been undermined by the party’s actions.”

Dodge, a Tea Party activist who was running as a dark horse primary challenger to the now retiring U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, was so sufficiently alarmed by these and other reports that he resigned from the GOP altogether. “I’ve been a Republican since I was eighteen and it’s not an easy thing to leave a party you’ve been involved with for so long, but I really didn’t think I was going to get a fair shake,” he says. “The Tea Party movement came about because of frustration with arrogance and elitism, and I just couldn’t stay in the party and be able to look in the mirror.” (He’s now running as an independent.)

In Waldo county, some party committee members were so upset they openly called for Webster’s dismissal, and a measure was passed urging the state committee to censure him. County chair Raymond St. Onge delivered the message, but says he didn’t agree with it. “Mistakes will occur, these things are going to happen,” he explains. “For forty years, the state’s Republicans have wandered in the desert. We get Charlie as a chair, and the House is in our control, the Senate is in our control, and the Blaine House is Republican. Is that a coincidence?”

In the end, the state committee took no action against Webster, but it did reverse his original rulings on the presidential preference poll. “We’re going to count all the caucus results from all the towns,” says the state party’s administrative assistant Michelle Dale, adding that these were to be posted on its Web site at the end of March. At press time, the results for a few small towns had not been released, but with the results from Washington, Waldo, and eastern Hancock counties, Waterville, and most other previously neglected caucuses incorporated into the tally, Romney maintained a lead of 115 votes, or nearly 2 percent, that was very unlikely to be overturned.

But even if it were, so what? Under the Maine GOP party rules, all delegates can completely ignore their caucus results. The poll results are nothing more than a beauty contest and, to the extent they were able to influence the national narrative, they’ve already done so. “One of the problems with making decisions in the ‘smoke-filled rooms’ is that they can be seen as illegitimate,” says political scientist Ron Schmidt of the University of Southern Maine. “Whatever happens on Election Day, you want your base excited and mobilized. If the party completely ignores the results of the straw polls, that can become a problem.”

The Maine GOP’s rules committee had a chance to change this rule in 2010, but dismissed it out of hand. “It was a typical lead balloon,” then rules committee head Art Pickard told me at the time.

The Maine Democratic Party does bind delegates to candidates based on caucus results, but in a Balkanized system that apportions delegates by town before turnout is known. In the 2008 presidential election, that approach resulted in wide disparities in per capita voting power depending on where one lived. Bangor voters got one delegate for every 10 participants, Portland one for every 18.5, and Camden only one for every 27, while many small rural towns had a one-to-one ratio. Whether this altered the overall result in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is unknowable, as Democrats didn’t keep town-by-town tallies.

These shortcomings and idiosyncrasies have many calling for Maine — and indeed other states — to revert to a primary system. “The choice of president is too important to be made in elections administered by amateurs and the tiny percentage of people who have the time to attend caucuses,” says Richard L. Hasen, an expert on elections at the University of California, Irvine, Law School. “Caucuses hark back to a time that’s passed.”

“A primary system is a lot clearer and gives everybody a chance to participate,” says O’Meara. “We have primaries for the Senate and House and legislature and governor, so why disassociate the presidential election from that?” Berardelli agrees, saying it’s the only way to break a “closed club process” in which party insiders make all the key decisions.

But the caucus system has plenty of fans, who point out that they help the parties exercise their organizational muscles and connect with their most committed grassroots supporters. “They were important to my town and my town committee,” says Jon Reisman of Cooper, a member of the Washington County Republican committee. “These were our caucuses and we weren’t going to let the party machinery at any level tell us what we were going to do and how we were going to run it. I think it’s a plus that the caucus brings out the most committed folks, even if the media would probably like primaries better.”

“I really like the caucus system because it allows us to have more personal contact with the people who form our backbone,” says Maine Democratic Party chair Ben Grant. “It’s a great way to get some face to face time with candidates and provides a lot of other great benefits you don’t get with a primary.

“Having to organize a caucus makes us work better as well,” Grant adds. “If you look at the Republican caucus, it’s an exposé of what can go wrong when there’s some weakness in the party.”

Despite the controversy, the caucuses are likely to stay, according to Sandy Maisel, director of Colby College’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. “The Republicans don’t want to go to a primary because it costs [the state] money, and the Democrats don’t want to because the caucus system works really well for them,” he says, pointing out that the Maine GOP has generally not embraced those who have successfully won statewide office. (Snowe, Susan Collins, Bill Cohen, and John McKernan were all more moderate than their party base, he says, and even Paul LePage had to build his own operation; by contrast, Democrats Ed Muskie, George Mitchell, and Bob Baldacci could more easily benefit from their party’s organization.)

Maisel may be onto something. Senate President Raye’s bill to switch to primaries in 2016 had a lukewarm reception at the State House. Legislators on the relevant committee voted 12-1 to instead study the matter and issue a report at the end of the year.

“To be frank, presidential primaries are rarely going to have a big turnout in Maine,” Maisel says. “It makes no sense to invest a lot of money when we aren’t doing anything that important to the national race.”