Rows of lawmakers sit in the State House in Augusta
Member of the House of Representatives look up as a vote is tallied during the final session, Wednesday, June 30, 2021, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine – Lawmakers who frequently vote against their party lines are increasingly rare in Augusta, with the share of Democrats and Republicans regularly bucking their parties steadily decreasing over the last decade.

The Bangor Daily News analyzed thousands of legislative roll call votes back to 2008 to understand how partisan voting patterns have changed over time. It showed members of both parties in the current Legislature were more likely to stick to the party line this past legislative session compared with any of those previous groups of lawmakers. For the median lawmaker, voting against the party used to be three times as likely.

The trend toward party-line voting fits with growing ideological differences between the two major parties, both at the national level and in Maine. It also likely reflects some state-specific trends in geographic polarization and with a greater tendency among lawmakers to make big decisions behind closed doors before emerging to vote.

During the legislative session spanning 2009 and 2010, when Democrats held both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion, the median House lawmaker voted against their party roughly 9.6 percent of the time. That figure was similar the following session, when Augusta was entirely under Republican control.

But lawmakers began voting against their own parties less frequently over the course of former Gov. Paul LePage’s tenure, a trend that has continued under Gov. Janet Mills. For the 130th Legislature so far, the median House lawmaker bucked their party just 3.4 percent of the time, the BDN found. That stands in stark contrast to just a few years prior — during the 127th Legislature, all but 13 lawmakers bucked their party at least 3.4 percent of the time.  

Data for roll call votes in the Senate was only available going back to the 127th Legislature in 2015 and 2016. During that session, the median senator voted against their party 7 percent of the time, compared with 5 percent this legislative session.

“A lot more decision making goes on behind closed doors in party caucuses now than was happening 20 years ago,” said Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, who served as Maine Senate President in the early 2000s.

Bennett, who returned to the Legislature in 2020 after a 16-year hiatus, was an outlier this legislative session, voting against his party nearly 21 percent of the time, the most of any lawmaker in either chamber. He said there was some “soft pressure” that “if you’re elected as a Republican, you vote Republican,” and the same for Democrats.

Other outliers this legislative session included Rep. Scott Landry, D-Farmington, who bucked his party on nearly 21 percent of roll-call votes and Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, who voted differently from his party 15 percent of the time.

Landry, who first assumed office in 2018 after flipping a Republican seat, recalled having a conversation with House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who was then in a lower leadership position, early in his first term. Fecteau told him Democrats hoped he would vote with the party often, but understood there would be votes that would be difficult for him because he represents a more conservative part of the state, Landry recalled.

The Farmington lawmaker, whose district also includes the Republican-leaning town of New Sharon, is the only Democrat in the Maine House representing any part of Oxford, Somerset or Franklin counties. That is in contrast to the Democratic House majority in 2009 and 2010, which included representatives from Jay, Mexico, Hiram and Skowhegan, among other western Maine towns.

Landry noted he often finds himself aligned with two Aroostook County Democrats, Reps. John Martin of Eagle Lake and Danny Martin of Sinclair, both of whom are term-limited. After this session Those two open seats are among those targeted by Republicans as possible gains this year, but Landry said it would benefit Democrats to elect more moderate Democrats from purple parts of the state.

“I feel the Democratic Party should have more people who are more moderate,” he said.

Roll-call votes reflect only part of the full picture of partisan voting habits in Maine. Some bills, often those with bipartisan support, pass via a voice vote. The BDN’s analysis did not include committee votes.

The tendency of lawmakers to cross party lines less is not unique to Maine. At the congressional level, with scores based on roll-call votes showing that Democrats and Republicans are farther apart ideologically today than at any other time in the past 50 years, a Pew Research analysis found.

Tom Saviello, a former lawmaker from Wilton who served as a Democrat, unenrolled member and then a Republican, said the Maine Legislature is “not nearly as dysfunctional” as the U.S. Congress, noting recent compromises, such as the supplemental budget, that wound up with majority support from both parties.

“There’s more bipartisan stuff that happens here,” Saviello said.