Glyneta Thomson, president of the Hancock County Republican Women in Maine, wants her friends and neighbors to have a voice when they vote in their state’s presidential preference poll during caucuses this Saturday.
Unfortunately for Thomson, the Maine Republican Party already announced the results of the state’s caucuses last Saturday night – before numerous towns in Hancock County and elsewhere had voted.
Thomson said the actions of the state party have discouraged new activists and disenfranchised potential voters. “It just doesn’t pass the smell test,” she said. “I think there was incompetence on the state committee level that should be addressed as soon as this whole thing is over.”
Last Saturday, the Maine Republican Party announced that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won the caucuses with 194 votes more than Texas Representative Ron Paul. The caucuses are non-binding, meaning delegates can vote for whomever they want at the state convention in May. But they provide a snapshot of what Maine voters are thinking, and can provide momentum for the winning candidate.
Maine law allows the towns to hold their caucuses anytime before March 20. Although the state party encouraged towns to hold caucuses Feb. 4 or 11, not every town did. In Washington County, which got several inches of snow last weekend, organizers postponed their caucuses by a week for public safety reasons. Hancock County, which started planning its caucuses nearly a year in advance, decided to stagger its caucuses over Feb. 4, 11, and 18 (with one town voting in March) to allow local elected officials to attend more caucuses. One town in Kennebec County scheduled a caucus for tonight, and another town caucuses Saturday.
“It wasn’t mandated that you had to have your caucus on one of those days,” said Lynn Labelle, whose husband is hosting a caucus at the couple’s home in Rome tonight. “Those days didn’t work for us and this town.”
While towns were told the state party would announce results Feb. 11, several local organizers said they were never informed that their votes would not be added to the final tally. Yet the state party announced last Saturday, and wrote in its press release, “Some caucuses decided to not participate in the Presidential poll, and will caucus after this announcement. Their results will not be factored into this announcement after the fact.”
Jinny Comiciotto, vice president of the Hancock County Republican Women, said the statement caused outrage, since officials and voters believed their votes would register even after that date. Only 20 of Hancock County’s 37 towns caucused before Feb. 11. “Maine people up here, they’re very, very proud of any votes that they cast,” Comiciotto said. “Even though they’re nonbinding, they still want their voice to be heard.”
Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner said he gives the state party credit for trying to draw attention to Maine by announcing the winner during a lull in the primary calendar, on a day when no other states were voting. But Gardner said errors were made. “Our votes should have very much been part of the statewide straw poll,” he said. “We’re part of the state of Maine.” Gardner said he contacted the state party before the snow delay, and was never told that the county’s votes would not be counted.
“I’m sure once we put our numbers out, the state party will reconsider their position and bring them into their totals,” Gardner said.
Maine Republican Party chairman Charlie Webster did not return a call and emails today. He has said in the past that the late votes are not likely to change the results. Just 113 people voted in Washington County’s 2008 GOP caucus. Several of the Hancock County towns caucusing this weekend had turnout in the single digits in 2008.
Some late voters say given the non-binding status of the poll, the early announcement doesn’t bother them. Larry Lockman, who is organizing a Saturday caucus, said the results will still be reported. “The media will have those numbers, everyone will be able to do the math and see what the results were, and new straw votes will be tallied up,” Lockman said.
Still, pro-Paul websites have been buzzing about voter fraud. Errors by the state party in reporting results in Waldo County and Waterville compounded the anger.
L. Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College, said he believes the party demonstrated “incompetence not impropriety,” due in part to what he called a “cockamamie system” with multiple days of caucuses. The result, he said, is even if Paul does win, Romney already got the attention – similar to what happened in the Iowa caucuses, when the state party announced Romney as the victor but a recount gave the race to Rick Santorum.
Gardner said he believes there will be a push to return to a primary system. “It’s simpler…and gives people perhaps a clearer means and message to have their vote heard and counted,” he said.
But Hayes Gahagan, chairman of the Aroostook County Republicans, which voted Feb. 4, disagrees. Gahagan supports Washington County’s request to have their votes counted. But he thinks the other towns should have known the results were being reported Feb. 11. Gahagan said the caucuses allow for excitement and energy that is not present in a primary. “Town caucuses are muddled by nature,” he said. “[They are] as grassroots, as close as you can get to a representative form of government.”
Shira Schoenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.