I’ve helped a lot of Mainers register to vote over the years and perhaps the most common mistake I’ve seen people make is accidentally joining the Green Party. They intend to register as an independent, but miss the “unenrolled” line at the bottom of that section of the card (or don’t understand what it means) and instead check the box next to “Green Independent.”
I’ve always believed that this happenstance of party nomenclature (“Maine Green Party” was updated to “Maine Green Independent Party” in 1998 after they re-qualified as an official party) and registration form configuration was part of the reason why Maine has the highest proportion of registered Greens of any state in the country (40,359, or 4.12% of active voters, as of last month).
Now, new research from the Los Angeles Times seems to add weight to my theory.
In California, the most popular minor party in the state is the American Independent Party, an abhorrent far-right remnant of segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 run for the White House. AIP is about as philosophically removed as possible from the Maine Green Independent Party, but a 500-person survey of voters registered with AIP found that the one thing the party shares with Maine Greens, the word “Independent” in its name, may be the key to AIP’s success.
Interviewers hired by the newspaper discovered that fewer than 4% of respondents “could correctly identify their own registration as a member of the American Independent Party.” 73% identified instead as having no party affiliation.
This being California, researches found that a slew of celebrities were among the almost half-a-million voters who had fallen into the AIP trap, including Emma Stone, Sugar Ray Leonard, Kaley Cuoco and Demi Moore. All these high-profile AIP members told the Times that they had intended to register as independents instead.
Unlike the MGIP, the Green Party of California, which lacks the word “Independent” in its name, has seen a gradual decline in voter registrations over the last decade (after significant growth in the 90s and early 2000s). They now count fewer than 100,000 registered members – just 2.5 times the number of registered Maine Greens, despite the fact that California’s population is 30 times larger.
I’m not saying that the Green Party’s success in Maine is anything close to accidental. There are lots of people who intentionally register as Greens and (unlike the AIP in California) there are strong local Green political organizations in cities and towns throughout Maine. Mainers have elected an outsized number of Green candidates to local offices compared to other states and, for a time, Maine State Representative John Eder was the highest elected Green officeholder anywhere in the country.
In the 1990s the Greens had a string of high-profile candidates for statewide and Congressional office in Maine, with Jonathan Carter winning almost 9% of the vote in the 1992 Second Congressional District race (perhaps contributing to Republican incumbent Olympia Snowe’s 7-point win over Democrat Pat McGowan) and 1998 Green Party gubernatorial candidate Pat LaMarche winning almost 7% of the vote in a four-way race (in which then-Governor Angus King was re-elected). In recent years they have been very successful in winning municipal offices in the city of Portland.
The Party has seen some tough times in the past few months, but they have the political and organizational foundation to stage a comeback, especially if ranked-choice voting passes at referendum this November, allowing them to run candidates for state offices without risk of splitting the left-leaning vote.
One advantage that a somewhat-inflated number of registered members may provide to the Greens, however, is an easier path to maintaining their official status. 5,000 voters must register with a party for it to be initially recognized in Maine and 10,000 registered party members must cast ballots in a general election in order for the party to continue to qualify.
These are regulatory bars that other minor parties have had difficulty clearing.
On an individual level, being registered as a Green Independent doesn’t make much difference for voters who had intended to remain unaffiliated with a party. They aren’t, for instance, likely to be annoyed by an inundation of mailers supporting Green Party primary candidates.
One hiccup, however, could occur if these voters later decide they want to participate in a Democratic or Republican primary contest. If they don’t realize they’re registered with the Green Party, they won’t know that they have to change their registration to Democratic or Republican 15 days before the vote (unlike truly unenrolled voters, who can register with a party on the day of the primary or caucus). They could show up on election day and find themselves inadvertently disenfranchised.
I don’t believe this potential confusion requires a legislative solution (state law already bans parties from using the word “independent” as their designation without a qualifier like “Green”) but perhaps this situation could benefit from a little more public education and it might be a good idea for the Secretary of State’s office to take this potential for confusion into consideration the next time they redesign Maine’s voter registration cards.