Q: Why does Maine split its Electoral College votes for president, instead of winner-take-all for the whole state?

A: Maine’s use of ranked-choice voting has earned the state a reputation as a maverick when it comes to electoral reform.

But Maine has long taken a stand against the whole winner-take-all philosophy that prevails in the rest of the country. And the state’s unusual election rules are about to get a lot of attention as the November presidential election approaches.

In 1972, the state adopted a system called the congressional district method for its assignment of Electoral College votes. Rather than attaching all four of Maine’s electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, one vote is assigned to each of Maine’s two congressional districts, with the other two being assigned to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

According to Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, the state’s break from tradition was a product of the 1968 presidential election. A three-way race between Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and independent candidate George Wallace provoked some familiar anxieties among Maine voters.

“Some of the same anxieties that led to some support for ranked-choice voting in Maine led to the decision to split the Electoral College vote. The logic was that if you wind up with three-way candidates, you could wind up with somebody winning all of the electoral votes in Maine who didn’t get a majority of the vote,” Schmidt said.

In others words, all the electoral votes could go to a candidate supported by less than half of the state’s voters.

The notion behind the state’s unconventional solution was that by distributing half of the Electoral College votes to each of the congressional districts, Maine could ensure that the voices of minority parts of the population would still be heard. Simply put, the process more closely resembled the idea of one person, one vote.

Congressional district voting made its debut on the floor of the 104th Maine Legislature the following year in 1969, and swiftly passed with little dissension. However, it was not put into effect until the next presidential election in 1972.

The ease in which Maine was able to refashion its system of assigning electoral votes is due to what is more or less a loophole in U.S. constitutional law. The only rule governing the Electoral College is under the 12th Amendment, which simply states that “each elector must cast distinct votes for President and Vice President.” The term “Electoral College” is never explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, leaving states with the freedom to customize how their electoral votes are dispersed.

Interestingly, Maine didn’t exercise its ability to split its Electoral College votes until the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump received one vote from the 2nd Congressional District. The other three votes went to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Since Maine deviated from the rest of the country in its distribution of Electoral College votes in 1972, only one state has followed suit: Nebraska. It adopted the system in 1992, assigning three votes to its congressional districts and two based on the statewide popular vote.

With the focus on Electoral College reforms re-emerging as a contentious issue every election cycle, why haven’t more states adopted this practice?

Schmidt attributes the country’s general apathy to the congressional district voting method to its lack of practicality in densely populated states. It’s just not for everyone, or every state.

“It works a lot more straightforwardly in largely rural states,” he said. “Consider California as an example, where a county like Los Angeles has 18 congressional districts that were drawn up by the state legislature until about 10 years ago. This reform could lead to the drawing of districts to be even further politicized because it could affect the outcome of presidential elections. I think it would just be too combustible.”

Despite Maine’s being a small and mostly rural state, its rejection of America’s commitment to the winner-take-all system has forced the country to pay attention. Maine’s maverick approach to conducting elections brings a bit of added national interest to the state’s four electoral votes.

  • The place we live in is an endless source of small mysteries. Whose idea was that? Where’d that come from? What’s up, when and why? Tell us what’s puzzling you about Maine or your local community using the form here. We’ll pick questions that have broad interest, find the answers and report back. So, got questions, Maine? We know you do.
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