A 2016 law that will swap Maine’s presidential caucus process to a primary in 2020 needs work before implementation or could risk widespread confusion, the secretary of state’s office told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that local costs of holding primaries — or at least how much the state will reimburse municipalities — should be nailed down before the system is implemented. She said the experience of polling municipal clerks in advance of Wednesday’s meeting illustrated the difficulty of such a widespread survey.

“The difficulty of getting that data on a survey pointed out to us the difficulty we’re going to have in getting that data and documentation for the costs to reimburse,” said Flynn during a statutorily required report to the Legislature.

Estimates about how much a presidential primary would cost the state and municipalities haven’t changed much and still hover near $1 million per election — with some $857,000 of that shouldered by municipalities. Currently, the Republican and Democratic parties fund the caucuses used to allocate convention delegates and demonstrate party members’ support for presidential candidates.

[Change to closed primary could cost Maine taxpayers more than $1M]

Maine held its most recent presidential primaries in 2000 — which were won by Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. The state switched to caucuses for the 2004 election.

In 2016, the Legislature enacted a bill to return to the primary system. Republican Gov. Paul LePage signed it. The same bill required the secretary of state’s office to produce a report estimating the state and local costs, which is the report that was delivered on Wednesday.

[Next Maine Legislature will need to find money for presidential primary]

The prospect of creating a presidential primary has been batted around the Legislature often, including failed 2012 and 2013 attempts that were in response to some of Maine’s national delegates being locked out of the Republican National Convention.

The initiative picked up steam again in 2016 following problems at many local presidential caucuses, especially on the Democratic side. Caucus attendees complained about long waits and poor organization and proponents of a primary say handing the process over to municipal clerks — who oversee non-presidential primary and general elections — would boost turnout and be more orderly.

Among Flynn’s other recommendations is that the Legislature amend the law to identify a specific date for primaries — as opposed to having the secretary of state set the date for each election — and to specify that it’s up to the parties to solidify their processes for choosing delegates for the national convention.

Rep. Louis Luchini, a Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said lawmakers would work with Flynn and her office with the possibility of proposing legislation this year.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.