Maine stands out when it comes to an important feature of presidential voting.
That’s due to a 1969 law that apportions our four electoral votes between the state’s two Congressional districts, with the popular vote winner in each district receiving an electoral vote rather than winner take all.
This is a revival of a method used in the nation's early years by several states, including Massachusetts and Maine, but largely abandoned after the 1830s. In the last century, only one other state besides Maine, Nebraska, has adopted it.
Despite plaudits from many quarters, the Maine-Nebraska system has not caught on. Voters in Colorado, for example, rejected it in a statewide referendum in 2004.
A citizens' initiative campaign in California in 2007 did not make it onto the ballot, in part because Democratic activists from throughout the country lodged repeated legal roadblocks. As one of the most reliably liberal states, California’s expected Democratic status would be ruptured if it repealed the winner-take-all method and instead each of its 53 Congressional districts, several of which are Republican, were allocated a separate electoral vote. In any event, the most populous state isn't likely to fragment its method, given that it clutches one-fifth of the electoral votes necessary to elect a president.
Our split system of awarding electoral votes is one of at least three reasons why Maine’s voice in presidential elections is louder than that of most other states. A second reason is that as one of the 10 smallest states, we have more electoral votes per capita than 40 other states.
Thirdly, media buys in Maine are less costly than in more populous states. Maine already is witnessing this with ramped-up TV ads in the Portland area. Though the motive is to target voters in the swing state of New Hampshire, these ads deliver a more cost-effective punch than those originating from more pricey Boston media outlets that also beam their signals to the Granite State.
Bangor-based TV and other upstate media might also soon witness some extra national candidate spending if the Second District continues to emerge as a close battleground between Obama and Romney.
No doubt, many national as well as Maine-based interests will spend big bucks in major plays for the few votes our state has in our presidential and other races.
Maine, Vermont and U.S. Senate race
For those who complain about lack of choices in our election, a quick look at the presidential ballot as it appeared in Maine for 1936 may offer some historic consolation.
Maine voters in that year had seven choices that ran the complete ideological spectrum — from Communist to Prohibitionist, from Socialist to Union; not to mention Socialist Labor, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt and the GOP’s Alf Landon. This year, only the Green and Libertarian parties spice up the presidential ballot in Maine, though several other parties are guests on the ballots of some other states. (Who shows up on the presidential ballot differs from state to state.)
The 1936 ballot also differed from today’s in that people cast their votes for members of the Electoral College, rather than directly for presidential candidates. To be sure, the presidential candidate to whom an elector was pledged was listed on the ballot, but votes were cast for the elector, not the candidate. Because each presidential nominee had five pledged electors at that time, voters could split their votes among the electors — voting, say for two FDR-pledged candidates and three of Landon’s.
This system was once observed in many other states. In California in 1912, two of the successful electors were pledged to Wilson, while the eleven others were for Bull Moose Progressive Theodore Roosevelt.
This system endured in Maine until the 1952 election when the names of only the presidential and vice presidential nominees themselves appeared.
The year 1936 is, of course, most politically memorable in the state as the year Maine and Vermont were the only two to favor Landon, an outcome that inspired the quip by James Farley that “As Maine goes so goes Vermont.”
That adage continues to resonate with some truth. The two states have favored the same presidential candidate in 18 of the last 19 elections. The one exception was 1968, when Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie’s presence on the Democratic ticket as Hubert Humphrey’s running mate propelled the state into the Democratic column at a time when Vermont and most of the nation voted for Republican Richard Nixon. During the same period, we paired our presidential voting with New Hampshire only 15 times.
Maine and Vermont may also be sharing another page in the political record books if former Gov. Angus King is elected to the Senate. That would establish Maine as only the second state after Vermont to have chosen a candidate not affiliated with one of the two major parties in an open-seat election for a senatorial election in modern times. Before Vermont did so with the election of Bernie Sanders six years ago, you have to go back to a 1923 Minnesota special election to find the next earliest state to do this.
There have been several other Senate independents since 1923. They include New Hampshire’s Bob Smith, who briefly became an independent in 1999; and Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman, who became one in 2006. All but Sanders, however, were initially elected from a major political party and didn’t give up their party affiliation until they had served a number of years in office.
Making history should not, of course, be the decisive factor in who should win the Senate race this year, but the spotlight on the contest — the outcome of which may well determine who controls the world’s most influential legislative body — is yet another example of why Maine matters in this year’s election.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He may be reached by email, email@example.com.