Garfield’s ghost and other spirits from the Maine campaign

10 mins read
Paul H. Mills
Paul H. Mills

By Paul H. Mills

Though Maine voters may not be as animated as usual about voting for president this year – many wanting to sit this one out – they still have some hot button issues to be fired up about for the Nov. 8 election.

These include the five citizen initiated referenda – a record for those in a single election in Maine. Recreational marijuana and hiking income taxes may well offset the lack of enthusiasm in the White House choices, though both marijuana and income tax related questions have each appeared more than once on previous Maine election menus. Moreover, three questions, gun background checks, minimum wage, and ranked choice voting, make their debut in a Maine state-wide election.

An additional impetus for Mainers to turn out is that our outcome may influence those in different time zones who will still be voting on similar citizen initiatives. Those in the nation’s most populous state, California not to mention Nevada, for example, will have three more hours to vote after we close our polls for two of the same issues on which Mainers will have already weighed in, recreational marijuana and firearm background checks.

Elections will also still be underway after we close our polls as Washington state, Colorado, and Arizona vote on minimum wage bills, an issue similar to that for which Mainers will already have issued a verdict. These are ones on which those voting late in the day further west might be taking their cue from a state whose voting motto was once, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”

The outcome of any of these referenda are difficult to predict. That’s because unlike candidate elections there are no explicit political party identifications to which to anchor the result. While it’s true that both Democrats and Republicans cross over to split their tickets, most ordinarily retain an allegiance in voting for the nominees of their own parties. Such an identification does not usually occur in the referenda voting.

Surprises will thus more likely occur when winners and losers are announced for the citizen initiatives than in the voting for public offices. This will make the results suspenseful. The imperative for getting out to vote is that much greater in this, a year in which our ballots are visited by more of them than ever before.

How Maine Is Different

It‘s in this citizen initiative arena that Maine stands out. For we are one of only three states east of the Mississippi to permit the process – Florida and Massachusetts being the only two others. This Maine did early on, by a constitutional amendment ratified in 1908. Most newspapers opposed the law. Typical of the opposition was an argument called upon by the Farmington Chronicle, which has likely been borne out today. It argued that the citizen voting on proposed laws was problematic because people would not take the time to thoroughly read the bills on which they were voting.

Two, including the Democratic Waterville Sentinel and Lewiston’s Evening Journal, then in 1908 a Republican paper, supported it, the Journal observing that the constitutional amendments providing for initiative and referendum “are the doctor’s order for getting legislators in-line with public rights and out of line with vested wrongs.” (That another medical theme that resonates with present day interests was also somehow on the mind of its editors was reflected in a headline the day before. It proclaimed, “Use of Opiates on Decrease.”)

Even though we were the eighth in the nation and the first in the East to adopt the provision the idea of giving citizens direct input on public policy was one that even before we adopted the citizen initiated referendum by no means novel to us. Well before the 1908 constitutional amendment Maine legislators had already been attaching referendum riders to some of their bills. (It was a practice that had in any event been mandatory for bond issues since the mid-19th century.)

The Bond Issue

The only bond issue this year, for $100-million, is the biggest since 2007. Like the counterpart from nine years ago, which was for $113-million, it’s for transportation. One of the safest predictions one can make is that despite its magnitude and a perceived popular disaffection with government, it’s likely to pass. In the 20-years from 1995 through last year, 67 of the 70 bond issues including all on transportation have been approved.

For some reason – perhaps because of sustained low interest rates – long term debt no longer has the stigma it once experienced with Maine voters. Even in the 2007-2010 era of the Great Recession, all twelve bond issues were approved.
More typical of the general historic record is that from 1990 to 1994 when only half of the 34 bond issues prevailed. This included one occasion when six of seven were defeated, this in 1991, the year when GOP leader Charlie Webster helped temporarily freeze many functions of state government in a 17-day shut-down in the nadir of a recession.

Usually, bond issues have more company on the ballot than now. (An exception was five years ago, the first year of the LePage administration, when there were none.) Ten – the last year of the Baldacci administration – were offered in 2010, for example and all of them, even in a year of voter unrest and an era of such Tea Party triumphs as the election of Governor LePage, were approved. The record for highest number of separate bond issues in a single Maine election was set in 1969. That’s when twelve – adding up to a total of $117-million – were submitted. Typical of that era, just half of them were approved.

Garfield’s Ghost

Halloween season that it is we can’t put ourselves on the doorstep of a presidential election without reminding ourselves of this spirit that looms over our heads. It’s the one that haunts our presidential voting record for a longer period than has spooked the Chicago Cubs.

Only once have we sided with the winner in a close presidential contest since 1880, though in 1880 our occasion for rejoicing was short-lived. This was when we backed the GOP nominee James Garfield, who won the national popular vote by a mere 10-thousand votes. The last president to be born in a log cabin environment, Garfield had embarked on a program of civil service reform when he died tragically in his first year in office.

Could it be, one wonders, that there is a curse from Garfield that stems from the fact that Maine’s own James G. Blaine – then Garfield’s secretary of state – was standing at Garfield’s side when the assassin’s bullet struck?

For in the nine closest presidential elections since Garfield’s, Maine has sided with the loser in eight of them.

No other state shares this distinction.

Superstition of course should not be deemed to harbor such control over our choices, however, even as it is intriguing to engage in a brief communion with such a legacy.

Paul 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 at

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  1. Wait a minute…. “For in the nine closest presidential elections since Garfield’s, Maine has sided with the loser in eight of them.” This seems to say that there has been one close election since Garfield’s when Maine sided with the winner.

    But just two paragraphs earlier we read, “The last time we sided with the winner in a close presidential contest was 1880…. This was when we backed … James Garfield.” Which says there have been none since then.

    So which is it? Was Garfield’s election the last time Maine voted for the winner in a close race, or did it happen once more since then?

  2. Larry is right and has picked up on a glitch in the article.

    The second paragraph in the Garfield’s Ghost Section should read, “Only once have we sided with the winner in a close presidential contest since 1880 though in 1880 our occasion for rejoicing was short lived.”

    Thanks for catching this Larry.

  3. Thank you Daily Bulldog for making the correction in the last part. The version that now appears is purged from the haunted sprit that Larry observed!

  4. Paul, it’s always so nice reading you articles. This is going to be a spooky and dicey election any way you look at it. Great read thanks Paul and Happy Halloween.

  5. Informative and appreciated article, Paul. You provide the background, and that enhances why things are this day.

    My issue with citizen-initiated referendum today is the out of state big money agenda items. Given the disruptive and distancing of national politics, it seems that Washington influence too often ignores and excludes the strength of the nation, the collective states. We, people of Maine, are fully capable of identifying and determining solutions to “our” problems without the influence of a few with too much money and a selfish agenda. As a friend said, “Thanks for visiting, but we will manage just fine in your absence!” Yep!

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