Sanders vote tossed out of Maine’s Electoral College

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AUGUSTA — Maine’s Electoral College snubbed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday.

Even though one of the state’s four electors, David Bright, cast a ballot for Sanders, it didn’t count.

Ruled out of order because Bright had a legal obligation to back Hillary Clinton, the electors voted a second time for president and Sanders was shut out.

Bright said he could have kept writing in Sanders on ballot after ballot until evening fell, but there was no point because the other three electors were always going to reject his vote as improper.

In the end, then, Maine’s votes were divided between Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Trump got one vote from Maine’s 2nd District elector, Richard Bennett, while Clinton racked up three in a losing cause nationally.

Bright said he felt disappointed that he couldn’t make his vote for Sanders stick but glad he could offer a show of support for the young people who worked so hard for the Vermont senator’s primary campaign. He said they represent the future of the party.

Bennett’s vote for Trump was the only one the next president got in New England, the result of Maine’s decision back in 1972 to award two electors to the statewide winner in the presidential election and one each to the winners of the state’s two congressional districts.

It marked the first time in Maine’s history that electors backed different candidates because the 2nd District overwhelmingly picked Trump on Election Day.

“It’s history,” said T.J. Rogers, a senior at Husson University who’s been active in Republican politics. Rogers and two friends came to the State House “just to see how the whole process goes” on the day that electors across the country ratified Trump’s victory. He takes office Jan. 20.

Bennett, the state GOP chairman, said he hopes “the forgotten people” of the 2nd District will see their “hope for change and a better future” pan out under Trump’s leadership.

Diane Denk, a Clinton elector, called the vote Monday “a very bittersweet mission” and voiced concern that Trump could pose a problem for many struggling Mainers. Still, she said, it is a great country “and we will survive.”

Before the session started, David Geller, a lawyer from Waterville chosen as counsel to the gathering, warned Bright that voting for Sanders — which he had announced ahead of time — would violate state law and put him in jeopardy of criminal prosecution for a felony.

“I can’t say you would be protected,” Geller told him, and advised him to adhere to the state law that requires electors to carry out the wishes of the voters.

It wasn’t clear what would happen next.

Attorney General Janet Mills said a prosecution wouldn’t be necessary. “It won’t come to that,” she said just before the session began.

When the time came for electors to cast their ballots, four pieces of paper were handed to the clerk. The president of the Electoral College, Betty Johnson, announced the results: one for Trump, two for Clinton and a fourth one “that was neither of those candidates.”

Johnson ruled it out of order, with support from Denk and Bennett, and asked the electors to vote once again, this time writing in their choice on a blank ballot.

Bright said he didn’t repeat his vote for Sanders because there wasn’t any point. He said he could have kept trying until state Sen. Troy Jackson, the minority leader appointed sergeant-at-arms for the Electoral College, had no choice but “to drag me out” and have someone appointed in his place.

Bright said he would not have considered backing Sanders except that he could see there was no chance Clinton would be elected president. He said he wanted to see what he could salvage from the wreckage of the campaign.

A political activist and organic farmer from Dixmont, he was a big Sanders supporter during the tough primary campaign that Clinton ultimately won. He said he decided that backing Sanders at the Electoral College would show a young generation that loved him that their support mattered and that it’s worth their time to stay involved and to keep pushing.

“In the long run, it does matter,” Bright said. “They need to stick around because we need them.”

He pointed out that two-thirds of Maine’s Democratic convention delegates wanted Sanders to be their candidate this year.

The last time an elector deliberately failed to cast an expected vote occurred 40 years ago when one from Washington state ignored President Gerald Ford’s victory in his state and cast a ballot instead for Ronald Reagan, who had lost a primary to Ford.

David Cheever, the state archivist, said Maine has never had what is known as a “faithless elector” in any of the 48 Electoral College gatherings in Augusta since 1820.

Despite Bright’s efforts to break that trend, the numbers reported from Augusta Monday are all in line with the outcome of the election last month.

Maulian Smith of Indian Island, a member of the Penobscot Nation, was given the job of serving as the messenger for the Electoral College. It required her to take the results to the federal district court in Bangor.

Smith said Bright asked her if she wanted the task, which pays $25, and she jumped at the opportunity.

Smith said she planned to drive to the courthouse immediately after Johnson closed the Electoral College.

Here is a statement Bright read at the Electoral College: 

“If my vote today could have helped Secretary Clinton win the presidency, I would have voted for her. But as the Electoral College meets all across this nation on this day, I see no likelihood of 38 Republican electors defecting from their party and casting their ballots for Secretary Clinton.

“So Hillary Clinton will not become president, and there is nothing I can do about that. Knowing this, I was left to find a positive statement I could make with my vote. 

“I am not a Clinton elector, I am a Democratic elector. I do not represent Democrats all over the country, I represent the Democrats in Maine. 

“I cast my vote for Bernie Sanders not out of spite, or malice, or anger, or as an act of civil disobedience. I mean no disrespect to our nominee. I cast my vote to represent thousands of Democratic Maine voters — many less than a third my age — who came into Maine politics for the first time this year because of Bernie Sanders. They organized, telephoned and sent in their $27. Many stood in line for hours in order to navigate our byzantine system of caucuses and convention this spring so they could be among the two-thirds of Maine Democrats who cast a vote for Sanders. 

“Most importantly, they did this to vote for someone they believed in, not to vote against someone they feared.

“Sadly, when the primary season was over, and their candidate was not successful, many of them lost hope, as well as interest. Many felt the Democratic Party had not listened to them, did not care about them, and did not respect them. Their sense of loss in July became our party’s loss in November. 

“Democracy is hard, and messy, and complicated, and those of us who have been at this game for a long time have learned to take the defeats when they come. But those lessons don’t come easily for new voters. 

“So I cast my Electoral College vote for Bernie Sanders today to let those new voters who were inspired by him know that some of us did hear them, did listen to them, do respect them and understand their disappointment. I want them to know that not only can they come back to the process, but that they will be welcomed back; that there is room in the Democratic Party for their values.

“To go forward, the Democratic Party needs these young voters. More importantly, America needs these young voters.

“I can’t do anything to change the results of the election this year. But perhaps by encouraging these idealistic voters to stick around, I can change the results of elections to come.”

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