If Maine returns to its traditional September election, might that end the insanity of the campaigns?

If this were almost anytime before l960 in our state’s history, our election campaign would be over tomorrow, for until that time Maine elections – since l82l – had been held the second Monday in September.

With a year of electioneering already behind us most people wish that this were still the case. The fact that it isn’t already over is an occasion to pay tribute to a nearly forgotten Maine legacy, see how it came into being, how it endured, how it was forsaken and why we should celebrate its advantages.

In our years before statehood while still a part of Massachusetts, state elections were held the first Monday in April, a time decreed by the Massachusetts Constitution of l780. March and April had long been popular times also for town meetings and other agenda setting deliberations of both state and local governments because these had traditionally been the opening months of the calendar.

By the l8l9 Constitutional Convention that set up the framework for Maine’s independent government, a motion in the convention to shift our own date to October, however, was rejected on the grounds that there would not be enough time for run-off elections, then required if no member of the Maine House of Representatives won more than half the vote. Though as an interim measure our first state elections in l820 retained the April date we had observed under Massachusetts rule, and statewide elections from l82l onward were thus set for the second Monday in September, a date that would endure for nearly l40 years.

Though the Constitution Committee proposed the second Monday of September election date, Committee Chair John Holmes personally preferred a Wednesday instead, arguing that a day immediately following Sunday would inevitably lead to a risk of election-eve campaigning on the Sabbath. Holmes withdrew his own motion for Wednesday when other delegates pointed to the practice of many farmhands, fishermen, and “mechanics” who were often home only on weekends and who would be better accommodated by a time that adhered as closely to a weekend as possible.

Holmes also successfully defended the Committee’s designation of the second week in September against proposals to shift to another week within the month, contending that the second week was a date between the first and second harvest, and that later weeks were subject to less favorable weather conditions to go to the polls.

Though by l840, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana were holding their elections in October, and Maine and Vermont were conducting them in September, most of the states had shifted to November voting. Maine stood out but it did not stand alone. Events in the “hard cider” campaign year of l840, the first nationally to showcase festival like campaign “rallies,” however, would help ensure that our state would remain a hold-out for early voting.

For this was the year when Maine, which up until then had been a Democratic stronghold, unexpectedly elected the Whig nominee for governor, Edward Kent. Whigs nationally exploited news of the outcome in Maine to muster support for their presidential ticket headed up by Tippecanoe hero General William Harrison.

“Oh, have you heard how Old Maine went?

She went hell bent for Governor Kent.

And Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”

It was from this l840 election we owe the adage, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

In other states, the trend to shift state elections to November was accelerated by an 1872 congressional mandate that federal elections occur the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This trend continued until, by l9l3, Louisiana was the only other state in which its elections occurred on a date other than one in November.

Eventually, the “As Maine Goes” tradition began to collide with another Maine tradition, that of frugality. The cost of opening the polls for two elections within two months while nearly all other states had merged theirs into one was a burden to local municipalities, who had to foot the bill for conducting the elections. Thus, from l874 onward various proposals were discussed by the Legislature to move our election date to November.

By l909, even the governor took up the cause, with Gov. Fernald’s inaugural address proclaiming “It is a waste of time and money to hold two elections when one can serve as well.” The Depression added further stimulus to the money-saving arguments for change. On this basis a l933 survey of Maine town and city government leaders demonstrated overwhelming support for the change.

The many proposals to change the election date all met with defeat, however, largely due to Republican opposition. The GOP held out against the change because, as a predominantly Republican state, the early election outcomes tended to give a publicity advantage to its presidential ticket. Cynics also suggested that Maine’s state-based candidates were subsidized by outside financial backers hoping to skew Maine’s local results in an effort to give a psychological boost to national campaigns.

Outcome of the l956 September state elections was a turning point, however, in the movement to eliminate the separate September voting. In it, Maine voters re-elected its Democratic incumbent governor in a landslide vote and voted in a Democrat to the state’s congressional delegation for the first time since l934. Thus, in l956, the pre-presidential election publicity, for one of the first times, favored the Democrats rather than the Republicans. The GOP, which nevertheless remained in control of the state Legislature, largely abandoned its earlier opposition to the date change and voted to put the issue out to the voters in a September l957 referendum amending the state constitution. In a light off-year voter turnout, 64 percent voted to ratify the change, which took effect for the first time in l960.

Though both the reasoning and momentum for change was by the late l950’s difficult to resist there is now much to commend in the older system. For one thing we would be able to compete with New Hampshire – whose presidential primary has, since the l950’s, given it a “Dirigo” like aura – for the national interest that was once a mystique of our own early election date.

A September date would provide a more adequate breathing space from our election date to the time when a new government assumes power, particularly since the change a few years ago that moved up the convening of our Legislature from January to early December. This is now an interregnum that leaves less than four weeks for crucial preparation time to the ever-increasing numbers of novice legislators converging on Augusta in this, the era of term limits, but could well be better served by the three month time period a September election would provide.

Such an interlude would also be a welcome respite from the fatigue that most voters seem to experience in the weeks now leading up to our November elections. It was also one prophesied as far back as l9l5 by Rep. Seth Snow, a Mars Hill merchant who then successfully prevailed upon his colleagues in the Maine Legislature to defeat a measure that would have given us a November state election back then.

“I do not see why we should want to get two months more of that kind of thing. We have all the time necessary, and if we had to go on the way we went last fall with two more months of campaign speeches or speech-making in the state of Maine, half of the people would not know any more how to vote intelligently than they did, and the other half would be nearly insane.”

Today, some nine decades after Snow’s lament, in the multi-media bombardment to which our modern marathon campaigns seem to subject us, we may find his arguments resonate in a way he could not have imagined. Now, both for the reasons advocated by Snow and on the basis of other compelling considerations, may be an occasion to revisit the long neglected debate on the issue which our state once found itself engaged.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]

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