Big turnout, big delays during Maine Democratic caucuses

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Some Democrats waited four hours or more to cast their votes for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders at presidential caucuses Sunday, prompting the Senate Democratic leader to propose scrapping caucuses and returning to primaries.

In Maine’s largest city, the line of people waiting to get inside a high school for caucuses grew to a half-mile. The wait was so long that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree brought them pizza.

State Sen. Justin Alfond vowed to present legislation to do away with caucuses and institute primaries, which were allowed before 2003.

“The awe-inspiring turnout meant too many had to wait in long lines to make their voices heard. We need to have a conversation, once again, about the best way to nominate our presidential candidates, and ensure the process is easy and accessible to all,” Alfond said.

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In primaries, participants cast tallies via secret ballot as they would on Election Day, and the election is conducted by state and municipal officials. Caucuses are run by the parties and require a greater time commitment at local gatherings featuring speeches. Caucuses generally involve a public show of support for the candidates.

Sunday’s turnout took the Democratic Party by surprise. Volunteers passed out absentee ballots to people waiting in line if they were willing to vote without going inside to participate in the caucuses.

Leah Arsenault, a Sanders supporter, stood in line wrapped in a wool blanket a friend had brought her, along with a warmer pair of socks. She had been in line for nearly four hours as the temperature hovered in the 30s.

“It seems there should be a better way to do this,” said Arsenault, 32. “This seems wrong.”

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Portland Mayor Ethan Stripling, a Democrat, was upset to see people still waiting four hours after the caucus was scheduled to begin. “This is unacceptable for people voting to wait out in the cold,” he said.

Sanders rallied his supporters this past week in Portland, telling them he’d win if there was a large turnout.

Bob Murray, a leader of the Maine chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, said Sunday that he’d waited decades for the chance to vote for a socialist candidate for president.

“Finally someone comes along speaking what I believe in,” said Murray, 66, before casting his vote for Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist.

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Barbara Schlichtman, 49, from Peaks Island, rode the ferry to the mainland so she could vote for Clinton. She sees Clinton as a role model with the experience needed to work with Congress and pass legislation.

“She’s a woman who has persevered through political and domestic storms,” she said. “She is a strong woman who has been consistent in her support for women’s issues and for children’s issues.”

The gatherings in 400 cities and towns across the state came a day after Republicans held their caucuses in Maine. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz beat New York businessman Donald Trump in the GOP contest in which the number of votes cast was more than triple the number in 2008.

Unlike Saturday’s GOP caucuses, the results of the Democratic caucuses on Sunday weren’t binding.

The votes will be used to select a slate of delegates to the state convention, where national delegates will be elected. Maine will send 25 delegates and five superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.

Sonia Cook Broen, 34, said she was thinking of the future for her two children, ages 10 and 7, when she cast her vote for Sanders.

“People think he’s far left, but he’s just for the people,” she said. “Some people say that’s being a socialist. But I call that being a good human being.”

Associated Press writer David Sharp contributed to this story.