Maine’s distinctive Electoral College voting system and the Native American who provided it

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By Paul Mills

Paul H. Mills
Paul H. Mills

Recent polls show Hillary Clinton out in front in Maine’s First District. They also show Donald Trump ahead in the Second. The state’s split identity has drawn renewed attention not only to the theme of “Two Maines” but also to the state’s pioneering and nearly unique system of apportioning its electoral votes.

If the present trend holds up, the outcome will mark only the second occasion in modern times where any state will have divided its votes by Congressional District and the first since 1828 when Maine has done so.

It’s a feature that has captured media attention from throughout the country. Just this past week, for example, this columnist fielded a call from a reporter from the Pittsburg Examiner on the subject.

Though in our nation’s early years Massachusetts, Maryland and Maine split their electoral votes by Congressional districts, the system was by the 1830s abandoned in favor of a winner take all or “at large” approach. This remained in effect throughout the country for some 130 years and is still the predominant method.

Maine in 1969 became the first state to at least partially restore the older system. The original bill called for the creation of four districts with the winner in each then entitled to a vote in the electoral college. By the time the bill made it out of committee it provided for one vote allocated to the winner in each of the two Congressional Districts but with our two remaining votes going to the state wide winner.

As state Rep. John Martin, then in his third term as a Maine House member, recalled for this columnist last week, the bill was passed “with the assumption that other states would follow suit.”

So far, however, only Nebraska has done so, it adopting the same method as Maine in 1991 and it was not until 2008 that the cornhusker state became the first in modern times to in fact split its votes under this system. This occurred after one of its three Districts voted for Barack Obama while the rest of the state went for John McCain.

In at least two states, citizen initiatives have been advanced to adopt a similar approach. Colorado voters, however, rejected it at the polls in 2004 while a petition campaign launched in Califorina in 2007 did not garner enough signatures to make it onto the ballot. One reason for the failure to gain traction in such more populous areas is that the apportionment of congressional districts there has typically resulted in a partition that renders nearly all districts definitively safe for either one party or another. That means presidential candidates might be more likely to overlook an entire state since campaigning there might not make as big a difference.

In more recent years Martin has unsuccessfully been pushing a bill to require Maine to vote for whichever candidate captures the national popular vote. This too has not picked up enough steam to yet make it effectual, since laws in the 10 states elsewhere that have signed onto the concept won’t go into effect until enough states to constitute an electoral vote majority pass it.

The Maine law passed in 1969, however, particularly in this year’s close presidential contest-is winning deserved interest from other parts of the country-not to mention the candidates themselves.

So just who was it that hatched the idea here?

According to Martin, it was the brainchild of Glenn Starbird, Jr., the bill’s sole sponsor.

Starbird was then in his third term as a democrat from Kingman Township, about 70 miles north of Bangor. A mill worker at Mattawamkeag’s Forster Manufacturing plant, Starbird was raising his hand to take the oath of office the first time in January 1965, the same month the baron of country music, Dick Curless, immortalized the nearby Haynesville Woods with his “Tombstone Every Mile.”

I first met Starbird in 1967. As a teenager who often frequented State House deliberations, I found his observations laced with intriguing classical and historical perspectives. An example was his role in a debate over a bill to substitute a single commissioner of alcoholic beverages for the three-member state liquor commission. Attorney Malcom Berman, a legislator from Houlton, took to the floor in support of the bill, extolling the Roman Ruler Augustus as an exemplar of single person leadership that had replaced the unstable Second Triumvirate. Starbird, who opposed it, seized the advantage with the rejoinder that “the incorruptible Augustus was followed by the very corruptible Tiberius.”

It should come as little surprise then that Starbird likely had an awareness of the early, obscure Maine practice of casting votes for president by Congressional Districts. No doubt this helped inspire his 1969 sponsorship of the bill to bring it back to life. Action on it was notably uncontroversial. It was unanimously adopted by the GOP controlled Legislature after Starbird’s assiduous groundwork within his own State Government Committee to which the bill had been referred.

In 1971, he resigned his seat to become the state’s Deputy Indian Affairs Commissioner. A Native American, he later went to work as “Rights Protection Researcher” for the Penobscot Indian Nation, specializing in historical and genealogical projects.

A methodical, as well as original thinker, our paths crossed from time to time over the ensuing years.

The last such occasion was in the late 1980s. We were both in Farmington at the Registry of Deeds where he was conducting research on some of the Penobscot Nation land titles of Franklin County. After some conversation on a variety of topics, I invited him across the street to my law office. In our conference room, memorabilia proclaiming the 1947 lecture at Farmington State Teachers College by the “Famous Russian Democratic Statesman,” Alexander Kerensky caught his attention.

“I saw Kerensky speak at Orono that same week in 1947 when I was a student there,” he recalled.

Kerensky, in exile in America since his ouster in 1917 by the Bolsheviks, had, by the time Starbird encountered him in the 1940s, become the symbolic hope for those wishing to restore some form of democracy in the Soviet Union, something that would not occur until the accession of Boris Yeltsin in 1991, 21 years after Kerensky’s death in 1970.

I have sometimes thought back on my last meeting with Starbird and this vicarious symbolic intersection between himself and Kerensky, both dedicated exponents of democratic procedures.

My opportunity to pursue the subject as well as discuss Starbird’s sponsorship of Maine’s electoral college voting system was lost upon his death from cancer in 1995 at the age of 66.

Starbird of course will never be remembered as much as Kerensky. His advancement, however, of an election system that is this year commanding some attention elsewhere is deservedly not forgotten. I hope he may also, like Kerensky, be some day remembered not so much as the leader of a somewhat forlorn cause but of one that had yet to be achieved.

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 pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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