Maine’s misguided “reform” — its split electoral vote now in national focus

Maine has been unexpectedly featured on this year’s national political scene, thanks to its unusual way of voting for president.

Each state gets a number of electoral votes for president that adds together the number of senators (two per state) and the number of members of the House of Representatives (based on population).

Maine has four votes.  Unlike almost all other states, each of its two congressional districts votes separately from the two statewide votes.

Much attention has been focused on the Second District, where Donald Trump is thought to have a chance.  If he won there, he would be awarded one of Maine’s four electoral votes.

The situation results from a mistaken attempt at electoral reform.

In 1968, there were three major candidates for president – Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and Alabama Gov. George Wallace.  All of Maine’s electoral votes could have gone to a candidate winning as little as 34 percent of the popular vote.

That year, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket headed by Humphrey.  Humphrey-Muskie got 55 percent of the Maine vote, so the anticipated problem did not arise.

Still, the Maine Legislature was wary and set up the current system with both a statewide election and two congressional district elections.  The districts represent no particular regions, and their boundaries change every ten years as the result of the census.  The Maine vote has never been split.

The measure was designed to discourage third parties, like Wallace’s American Independent Party.  The theory was that even if he could have carried one district, he would not have carried the state.

All other states, except for Nebraska, continue to use a winner-take-all system for their electoral votes.  Since 1996, the cornhuskers have used the Maine system.  In 2008, Nebraska gave one vote to Democrat Barack Obama while its other four went to Republican Mitt Romney.

The Maine system has attracted little attention, because it would have had no real effect on the outcome in either the state or national result.

In the 2000 election, Democrat Al Gore beat Republican George W. Bush by half a million popular votes, but lost in electoral votes, leading some to urge using the popular vote.  Moving to the national popular vote in presidential elections would require amending the U.S. Constitution.

The Maine system may give the impression of being closer to the popular vote than is the winner-take-all system.  Adopting it requires only state action.

But, no matter how much attention Maine’s Second District gets this year, it is unlikely that other states will be tempted to adopt it in an effort to better approximate the popular vote.

The reason?  The Maine system doesn’t work.

Take the last presidential election.  Obama defeated Romney by 332-206 electoral votes and carried a majority of states.  The Democrat also won 65.9 million total popular votes to 60.9 for the Republican.   Electoral vote tracked popular vote.

If the Maine system applied nationally, Romney would have won, having carried more congressional districts.  The sharply different result would have been 274-264 for the Republican.

Few people would have considered that a fair result, possibly tipping the balance in favor of amending the Constitution to allow for a national popular vote.

Electoral votes result from the compromise that made the Constitution possible.  To get small states to accept it, the Founders weighted each state’s vote by counting its senators as well as its population.  Without that deal, small states would have reduced effect on the presidential election.

If only Maine’s popular vote counted, its influence on the outcome could be cut in half.  To get rid of electoral votes would upset the basic founding deal that treated all states equally.  But perhaps a deal made two and half centuries ago needs to be updated.

The Maine system is clearly not the answer.  Not only does it weaken the influence of states by splitting their votes, its danger is in producing an undemocratic outcome quite different from the will of the voters.

Maine and Nebraska don’t cause much concern.  But the weakness of the Maine system becomes evident when it is applied nationally.  In both the country as a whole and in Maine, a candidate could get the most popular votes, but lose in the electoral vote count.

The Maine system sounds better than it is.  It could undermine majority rule.

If nothing else, its inherent weakness, revealed when looked at closely, should serve as a warning that so-called “electoral reform” can produce unexpected and undesirable results.

Ranked-choice voters, please note.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.