Maine stands out in the nation when it comes to an important feature of presidential voting.

Our split system of awarding electoral votes gives Maine voters a louder voice than those from most other states.

As one of the 10 smallest states, Maine also has more electoral votes per capita than 40 other states.

In 1936, people voted for members of the Electoral College rather than directly for the presidential candidates. Each candidate’s name was listed with his electors, but votes were cast for the elector and not the candidate.

Each presidential nominee had five pledged electors at that time, so voters could split their votes. They could choose, for example, two electors pledged to Democrat Franklin Roosevelt and three pledged to Republican Alf Landon.

This system once was observed in many other states. In California in 1912, for example, two of the successful electors were pledged to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, while the 11 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.

In 1969, the state passed a law that apportions our four electoral votes among the state’s two congressional districts, the popular vote winner in each district afforded an electoral vote rather than the winner-take-all method. Only Nebraska also has this ability to split electoral votes.

Despite plaudits from many quarters, the Maine-Nebraska system has not caught on nationwide. Voters in Colorado, for example, rejected it in a statewide referendum in 2004.

A citizen 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As one of the most reliably liberal states, California’s sure thing Democratic status would be ruptured if it repealed the winner-take-all method and instead each of its 53 congressional districts, several of which are Republican, could be allocated a separate electoral vote.

The vote of 1936 offers some other historical tidbits. People who complain about lack of choices in this year’s election — only the Green and Libertarian parties spice up our presidential ballot beyond the big two — should look at the ballot of 76 years ago.

Seven choices for president were offered that year, running the complete ideological spectrum: Communist, Prohibitionist, Socialist, Union, Socialist Labor, Democrat FDR and Republican Landon.

But 1936 is most politically memorable as the year Maine and Vermont were the only two states to favor Landon, an outcome that inspired the quip by James Farley that “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”

It’s an adage that continues to resonate with some truth. The two states have favored the same presidential candidate in 18 out of the last 19 elections.

The one exception was 1968, when Sen. Edmund Muskie’s presence on the Democratic ticket as Hubert Humphrey’s running mate propelled Maine into the Democratic column when Vermont, and most of the rest of nation, voted for Republican Richard Nixon.

During the same period, Maine has paired our presidential voting with New Hampshire only 15 times.

U.S. SENATE RACE

Maine and Vermont also may share another page in the political record books if former Gov. Angus King is elected to the Senate.

Six years ago, Vermont elected Bernie Sanders to the Senate, becoming the only state in recent times to have chosen a candidate for an open seat who was not affiliated with one of the two major parties. Before that, we have to go back to Minnesota elections of the 1930s to find a state to do this.

The Senate has had several other independents since the 1930s, including 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, initially were elected from a major political party and didn’t give up their party affiliation until they had served a number of years in the 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 Congress’ upper chamber — 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 can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]

filed under: