Two recent Maine based developments have once again put the state on the national stage of how the country elects its president.

The first came last month when the legislature voted to join 16 states and the District of Columbia in the National Popular Vote Compact, an agreement by which the participating jurisdictions are pledged to casting their electoral votes for the winner in the national popular vote. That would happen even if the state involved voted for someone else. The plan Maine just voted to join would take effect only if places with at least half the number of electoral votes sign on.

So far, in the 18 years the proposal has been on the table those with 209 of the 270 threshold have done so. At the same time Maine made its move, prospects for Michigan to do the same emerged when its special legislative elections put Democrats – who are a mainstay of support for it – in the majority.

Maine had no sooner signed on to this when a movement by Trump activists to change Nebraska’s voting laws made Maine Democrats stand up and take notice. That’s because Republicans are seeking to make Nebraska revert to a winner take all outcome when casting its electoral votes. Nebraska is the only state other than Maine that splits its electoral votes based on the winner in each congressional district.

This has meant that both in 2016 and 2020 Trump won only four of Nebraska’s five votes because Democrats carried one of its three districts. In these same elections a Republican counterweight to this occurred here in Maine when Donald Trump wound up with one of ours by carrying the Second District.

The proposed Nebraska change would effectively deny Democrats a shot at one of Nebraska’s electoral votes.

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Maine Democratic House Leader Mo Terry of Gorham wasted no time it asserting that Maine should take a page out of the same book and undo its own system to offset the Republican advantage in Nebraska. If we did, the state would likely deprive Trump the chance to win any of Maine’s electoral votes.

The attention Maine is getting in all this is an occasion to revisit how we arrived at our present destination.

In the first few decades of the 1800’s, Maine both as part of Massachusetts and then after achieving statehood in 1820, was one of a few states that cast its electoral votes by Congressional districts. By the 1830’s this was generally abandoned in favor of the winner take all or “at large” approach. But for sporadic departures – Michigan in 1892, for example – this method remained for some 130 years and is still the predominant method.

The 1968 election in which the third party candidacy of Alabama’s George Wallace posed the risk of denying any of the major candidates a majority vote in the electoral college and thus throwing the election into the US House, aroused credible support for constitutional change. This was one long advocated, for example, by Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a champion not only of a popular vote system for electing presidents but also of a national primary to choose nominees.

In 1969, the U.S. House took the biggest step ever taken along these lines when it voted 339 to 70 to enact the Bayh-Celler Act. It would have replaced the electoral college with the popular vote while at the same time requiring a run off election if no candidate captured at least 40 percent. Despite support from GOP President Richard Nixon and bipartisan backing, for example, from Maine Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie – himself the 1968 V.P. nominee – and Smith, a Republican – the measure failed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Against the backdrop of the same 1968 contest that seized interest at the national level, Maine in 1969 passed its own law designed to nudge the country in the direction of a popular vote. The original bill called for the creation of four districts with the winner in each of them entitled to a vote in the electoral college. By the time the bill made it out of committee it provided for a hybrid: one vote allocated to the winner in each of the two Congressional Districts but with the remaining two going to the state wide winner.

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As former House Speaker John Martin, then in his third term in the Maine House, recalled in an interview with this columnist, the bill was passed “With the assumption that other states would follow suit.”

So far, only Nebraska has done so. This it did in 1991.

Both the Maine and Nebraska laws have in the last two close elections been commanding significant attention.

Maine’s landmark 1969 law was the brainchild of a 39-year old mill worker at Mattawamkeag’s Forster Manufacturing plant named S.Glenn Starbird, Jr., in his a third term representing a cluster of tiny communities just outside Millinocket and Patten. The Kingman Township Democrat was the sole sponsor of the bill.

I first met Starbird at about this time. As a high school student who frequented State House deliberations, I found his observations laced with intriguing classical and historical perspectives, an erudite advocate of many causes. He clearly had an understanding of the practice Maine once had of casting its electoral votes by districts, one which in part seemed to prompt his 1969 bill to revive the once moribund method.

Presidential politics were also likely more on his mind than that of the typical state legislator. That’s because the year before along with seven other local Democratic leaders he had won a random drawing to accompany Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey on a summer fishing trip in the Maine wilderness.

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Starbird’s paths and mine crossed from time to time over the ensuing years. The last such occasion was in 1987. We were both in Farmington working on separate projects at the registry of deeds where he was then as a researcher for the Penobscot Indian Nation exploring details of the northern Franklin County holdings associated with the Tribe under the 1980 Settlement Act.

At that time I beckoned him across the street to my office for an informal visit. The walls decorated by assorted memorabilia, the one that most caught his attention was a poster promoting the 1947 lecture at Farmington State (now UMF) by “Famous Russian Democratic Statesman” Alexander Kerensky, then in exile in America since the overthrow of his regime in 1917.

“I saw Kerensky speak at Orono that same week in 1947 when I was a student there,” he recalled.

I have sometimes thought back on my last encounter with Starbird and this vicarious intersection between himself and Kerensky, both dedicated exponents of democratic procedures. My opportunity to further pursue the subject was lost upon his death from cancer in 1995 at the age of 66. He died the day after Memorial Day, also the day after the death of Margaret Chase Smith.

Starbird will never be remembered as much as either Margaret Chase Smith or Kerensky. His advancement of an election reform that is now seeing renewed national attention is deservedly not forgotten.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail at pmills@myfairpoint.net

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