Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil

BY GORDON L. WEIL

Maine is getting a lot of unexpected political attention these days. It has to do with how we vote for the president and vice president of the United States.

Each state gets a number of votes equal to the total of its senators and representatives. These are votes in the Electoral College. Maine gets four.

When you vote for president, you are electing the state’s Electoral College members.

The idea behind the Electoral College is that the presidential election is a collection of state elections.

Each state decides how its electors are chosen. Throughout American history, all electoral votes cast by each state traditionally went to the winner of the state’s popular vote.

Maine single-handedly changed that. In 1985, Maine decided to select its four electors differently: Two are chosen by the statewide popular vote, and two are chosen based on the vote in each of the two congressional districts.

The result could be that all four electoral votes go to one candidate, but it’s also possible for a split, if a candidate won in one House district. Since the new law was adopted, Maine’s vote has not been split.

In 1992, Nebraska became the second state to adopt this approach. In 2008, Barack Obama picked up one of the state’s five electoral votes.

Allowing some voting by congressional district can give a minority the chance to have a voice in the state’s choice that it does not have in a winner-takeall election.

Under what is now called the “Maine-Nebraska system,” there are no longer 50 statewide elections — apparently contrary to the intent of the framers of the Constitution.

Though the new system has not been tested in court, it may well be constitutional, even though it changes the Constitution from the original intent.

In 2012, Obama beat Mitt Romney by about 5 million votes and won overwhelmingly by 332-206 in the Electoral College vote.

But if elections were held across the country on the Maine- Nebraska system, Romney would have won a narrow victory in the Electoral College.

Right now, the Republicans control a majority of state legislatures and have been able to design congressional districts to favor their party. According to some analysts, their control has given the GOP an extra 2 percent advantage over what they would have with politically neutral districts.

GOP districting is linked to the Republicans’ push for states to adopt the Maine-Nebraska system.

To see how this would work in practice, let’s look at Pennsylvania. Obama carried the state by 284,000 votes, while Republicans captured 13 of the 18 congressional seats. While winning an overwhelming majority of the House seats, the GOP got fewer votes than the Democrats.

Under the Maine-Nebraska system, it is likely that Obama would have received 7 electoral votes (two statewide plus five in districts) instead of all 20.

The problem for the Republicans is that Democratic candidates get all of the electoral votes in large states like California and New York. Using the Maine-Nebraska system, the GOP would get a good share of the presidential vote, even in states they did not carry.

A few years ago, after Al Gore won the 2000 popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote, some Democrats pushed for each state to allocate its electoral vote in line with the national popular vote. In effect, that would end the federal election of the president.

People in high-population states would be making the decision for small states, like Maine.

That idea has faded, but it reflects the same concept as changing to the Maine-Nebraska system: When you lose an election, don’t change your policies, change the rules of the game.

The Constitution embodied the concept of a federation of states that is worth safeguarding. Going to the use of the national popular vote or the Maine-Nebraska system undermines the federal system where states retain some sovereignty.

When states are weakened even in one respect, the entire federal system is watered down.

Perhaps Maine was unaware of the genie it let out of the bottle in 1985. If it now went back to a statewide election for president, it could send a message to the nation and protect federalism.

GORDON L. WEIL, of Harpswell, is an author, publisher, consultant and former public official.