Monday, October 27, 2008

Maine and the Electoral College

Though Sen. Barack Obama will surely win Maine and the state's first district next Tuesday (the latest two polls at Five Thirty Eight have him winning by about thirteen points and fifteen points, respectively), Sen. John McCain dispatched his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, to Bangor as late as October 16 in an attempt to win Maine's less populous second district.

Why? Because Maine is one of only two states (Nebraska is the other) that splits its Electoral College votes, awarding one electoral vote to the winner of each district and two votes to the winner of the statewide vote. So, you may be asking yourself, why is Maine is an exceptionalist (sort of) when it comes to the electoral college?

Well, that's where Julie Murchison Harris of the Bangor Daily News comes in.

According to Harris, Maine's love affair with the split electoral vote was inherited from our days as a colony of Massachusetts and lasted from our independence in 1820 (please, a moment of silence for the "Sultan of Bath") until 1828, when we decided to become more like the rest of the country and adopted the "winner-take-all" approach to handing out our electoral votes.

But then the 1968 presidential race happened.

Responding to complaints that the three-way race among Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace produced a result that did fully embrace the "one person, one vote" democratic ideal, State Representative S. Glenn Starbird Jr., a Democrat from Kingman, proposed the state adopt a system in which Maine's Electoral College votes be split up according to congressional districts. Hence Maine's current electoral quirk.

Interestingly, Harris notes Rep. Starbird Jr.'s proposed reform attracted little attention and inspired little debate when it was taken up by the legislature in 1969, largely because the legislature and populace were pre-occupied with other issues. Indeed, according to Harris, the Vietnam War, a change in the minimum voting age (from 21 to 20 years), the establishment of the state income tax, a reform in school funding, a drunk-driving law, and the institution of the Maine Housing Authority all combined to steal the spotlight away from the Electoral College reform. Which is remarkable considering its potential effect on a close presidential race.

On the other hand, considering Maine hasn't split its Electoral College votes since the reform was first practiced during the 1972 presidential race, maybe it will remain the dinner party banter of only political junkies for at least four more years.

Much like the Electoral College was before the 2000 presidential election.

- John C.L. Morgan

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