Shribman: As Maine goes, so goes Electoral College reform -- maybe

In this June 12, 2018 file photo, Finn, a golden retriever puppy, decides to take a rest in the middle of auditorium after owner Korey Pow cast her vote at a polling station in the Kennebunk Town Hall in Kennebunk, Maine. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

FAYETTE, Maine -- The other night, the moon rose over the lake, creating a stream of light that illuminated the passage of two loons. The tiny library at the bend of the road is open only on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The nearby orchard is selling a McIntosh blend of apple cider, as cool and crisp as the mornings here. There's hardly a soul along Echo Lake Road.

Here in these pine groves and birches -- in this most peculiar political battleground, with combat across the second-most-rural congressional district in the country, 14 times the size of former Vice President Joe Biden's home state of Delaware -- some of the most unusual civic combat in the country is being waged.

It's all over a single electoral vote in the November election.

But it is more than that. It is also a testing ground for any overhaul of the Electoral College that might be contemplated after the 2020 election.

At least that is how this situation -- the awarding of single electoral votes to the winner of each of Maine's two congressional districts, along with two to the winner of the state's popular votes -- started out: as a reform movement that this state, with its independent streak (and its history of governors and, now, a senator, who declared themselves Independents) undertook as a first step 48 years ago.

But with the possibility of a close presidential election and with new pressures on the Electoral College, the rest of the country suddenly is paying attention to a broad swath of remote America resting on the Canadian border -- 27,236 square miles of mostly forest and scattered settlements, with vast stretches of land owned by the government and paper companies, with roads that will be officially closed in a few weeks because of heavy snowfalls, and with wild rivers that once carried the trees felled by angular men from the logger camps that remain a vivid remnant of Maine folklore.

Four years ago, Trump lost Maine to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who took three of the state's electoral votes. But Trump won the second congressional district and harvested its single electoral vote. His team is working hard this fall to repeat the trick, but polls show Biden, who will win statewide, could sweep this district as well.

Not that it will be easy. Drive along these remote parts, and you'll see rural byways clogged with signs and flags for Trump. The other day I took a long walk along a dirt road and saw a Trump sign two houses after the electrical lines ended; the chances of a traveler seeing that message is about as great as the chances a lobster has for a long, fulfilling life after the water in the pot has boiled for three minutes.

"I took a drive through rural Maine, and I never saw so many lawn signs in all my life," said Harold Pachios, a lawyer active in the state's politics since the days of its legendary Democratic governor, senator and secretary of state, Edmund S. Muskie. "I never saw anything like this even for Muskie. It's a movement, a cult."

And yet the congressional district that gave Trump a 10-point victory in 2016 defeated a Republican incumbent House member, Rep. Bruce Poliquin, two years later by the slender margin of 3,509 votes. Now the new incumbent, Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, is poised to win a second term in the district covering four-fifths of the entire state.

"There's a lot of split tickets here," Golden, 38, said in an interview. "We take our own path in thought and personal lifestyle here. Voters here aren't committed to individuals or parties but look at every election separately."

Even so, the latest New York Times/Siena College poll shows Biden has a slender lead in the district, which once had a workforce heavily tilted toward labor unions in the long-ago days when nonfarm employment was concentrated in the textile, shoe and paper industries, which were in steep decline beginning in the late 1960s. "This is a case where the congressman may be pulling Biden's number up a bit," said Amy Fried, a University of Maine political scientist.

It was shortly after the eclipse of those industries -- all of them beneficiaries of Maine's raging rivers -- that the first modern qualms about the Electoral College emerged, prompted in part by the distress of Muskie, the 1968 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, over the decision by Lloyd Bailey, a Richard Nixon elector, to vote instead for former Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama.

But the determination to take on the Electoral College's power was a bipartisan movement.

"This was a rarity: purity in politics," said Severin Beliveau, who was state Democratic chair at the time. "There was mass popular support. It wasn't a partisan issue, and it didn't seem to help any particular politician."

But there also was the hope that the movement would affirm a political maxim that had been popular since 1820: As Maine goes, so goes the nation.

"The idea was that if we did this, others would follow," said John Martin of Eagle Lake (population 805, half of whom speak French), who was House speaker at the time and now is the longest serving lawmaker in Maine history. "We wanted to do something the public wanted rather than what the parties wanted."

The legislation went into effect after Democratic Gov. Kenneth Curtis, who preferred total elimination of the Electoral College, allowed it to become law without his signature. He permitted its enactment because the Maine statute "may well aid our national decision."

Though many states used the district system until 1836 -- they abandoned it because they believed they held greater power in a winner-take-all arrangement -- only Nebraska has followed Maine in modern times, doing so in 1991.

Nebraska's action was not part of the reform impulse that once was personified by its legendary senator, George W. Norris, a onetime advocate for overhauling the Electoral College who died in 1944. The state instead was motivated by what James P. Melcher, the University of Maine (Farmington) scholar who is the leading authority on congressional-district electoral votes, characterized as "a desire for more attention from presidential candidates."

As Maine goes, so goes Nebraska. And maybe, someday, 48 other states.

North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

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