Split Decision

Split Decision

How Maine ended up with its oddball system for picking a president — and why that system is better than the way 48 other states do it.

By Rob Sneddon

[dropcap letter=”I”]n 1968, far-right presidential candidate George Wallace snagged 46 electoral votes out of the Deep South, the most of any third-partier since Teddy Roosevelt a half-century earlier. Richard Nixon went on to win a convincing majority in the Electoral College (over Hubert Humphrey and his running mate, Maine’s own Ed Muskie), but Wallace’s showing still got voters and politicos nervous that future elections might wind up decided by the House of Representatives — which the Constitution mandates if a three-way split in the Electoral College doesn’t produce a majority.

More than 80 percent of Americans favored reform, some suggesting we simply replace the Electoral College with a straight-up popular vote. Instead, a New Hampshire senator introduced a compromise proposal: a constitutional amendment for a “district plan” that would award electors by Congressional district rather than by the prevailing state-by-state, winner-take-all method. The goal was to correct a “fatal flaw” in the existing system — namely, that “if a candidate squeaks through in certain key states, he could enter the White House without winning the popular vote.” Imagine that.

Split Decision
Photo by Gabby Orcutt

Iconoclasts that we are, Mainers didn’t want to wait for the slow grind of the federal government, so state representative Raymond Rideout, from Manchester, proposed his own version of the district plan, and the legislature passed it in March 1969. Ever since, two of Maine’s four electoral votes have gone to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote, with an extra one apiece to the winner in each congressional district.

Surprisingly, no one back then really seemed to notice. The change got scant news coverage, even within Maine. State legislators “really intended it more as a symbolic move than a change people would still be talking about four or five decades later,” says James Melcher, a poli-sci prof at UMaine Farmington. “Basically, it was a kick in the butt to Congress.”

The demographic divisions here mirrored divisions across the rest of the country; Maine’s system just lets the results better reflect reality.

That kick, though, didn’t land. Congress’s constitutional amendment had seemed like a slam dunk, but after passing the House by a wide margin, it suffered death by filibuster at the hands of Southern senators. Then, Nixon’s landslide in 1972 — 520 to 17 in the Electoral College — buried the issue. Maine was left all by its lonesome with its aberrant system until 1992, when Nebraska joined the vote-splitting club. (So much for the old saw: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”)

For decades, the point was moot anyway — Maine’s districts voted in lockstep for the next 11 elections. During that run, Melcher says, public opinion on the district arrangement ranged from indifference to ambivalence. In 1969, the Press Herald had called the proposal a “ridiculous plan.” A decade later, the paper supported it. By 1988, it opposed it again.

Then came 2016, and this anomalous voting system suddenly seemed to matter. There were scenarios, however unlikely, in which a split vote in Maine might have determined the outcome. And for the first time in modern history, the state vote did fracture along district lines, with the state’s largely rural, largely northern 2nd district going for Trump. The demographic divisions here mirrored divisions across the country; Maine’s system just lets the results better reflect reality.

The contentious nature of the 2016 race — and the fact that, for the fifth time in American history, a presidential candidate won despite losing the popular vote — has renewed doubt in the Electoral College. If popular and political will ever gets behind reform, like back in ’68, maybe there’ll be something to our state’s proverbial bellwether status. Until then, we’ll have to settle for a more modest axiom: as Maine goes, so goes Nebraska.