Caution tape closes off a voting stall to help distance voters to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus during Election Day at the East End School, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bipartisan effort to open Maine primaries to unenrolled voters that has gained the support of prominent political figures cleared the state Senate easily on Tuesday.

The proposal championed by Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, would allow voters to cast a ballot in a primary without registering with a political party. Advocates have said the measure will create better engagement between the parties and the voters they are trying to court. 

It initially passed with a 27-7 vote and faces further votes. If it succeeds, it would put Maine among 21 states to have at least semi-open primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The measure would stop short of truly open primaries, which allow people to vote across party lines without changing affiliation, but they could dramatically shift the conversation in Augusta and beyond with roughly one-third of voters unenrolled in November.

The state currently allows unenrolled voters to vote in whatever primary they choose so long as they enroll in the party before voting. If the change passes, unenrolled voters who choose a primary would not be enrolled in a party but would be counted as party members for choosing delegates to state and national conventions.

The idea has gained the support of former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District. But it could face a tough fight in the House. Prior efforts to create change around primaries have failed. Democrats unilaterally supported the bill but Republicans took a mixed stance, with leaders Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, and six others voting against Pouliot, the No. 2 Senate Republican.