Two recent Maine developments have once again put the state on the national stage when it comes to how the country elects its president.

The first came last month when the Legislature voted to join 16 states and the District of Columbia in the National Popular Vote Compact, an agreement by which the participating jurisdictions are pledged to casting their electoral votes for the winner in the national popular vote. That would happen even if the state involved voted for someone else.

The second was a movement by pro-Donald Trump activists to change Nebraska voting laws to restore the winner-take-all system of casting its Electoral College votes.  This has meant that, both in 2016 and 2020, Trump won only four of Nebraska’s five votes because Democrats carried one of its three districts. In these same elections, a Republican counterweight to this occurred here in Maine when Trump wound up with one of ours by carrying the 2nd Congressional District.

It was a move that stirred a response from Democrats in Maine – the only other state that has a proportional system – since such an effort would give the Republican Party a hammerlock on Nebraska electoral votes. To offset this, Maine House Democratic Leader Mo Terry vowed to do the same in Maine if the Trump effort in the Cornhusker state were successful. This move would likely offset the Trump move in Nebraska; the system we now have would be abrogated in favor of winner-take-all, in effect no longer putting the Trump-leaning 2nd Congressional District in play.

The attention Maine is getting in all this is an occasion to revisit how we arrived at our present destination.

In the first few decades of the 1800s, Maine – both as part of Massachusetts and then after achieving statehood in 1820 – was one of a few states that cast its electoral votes by congressional district. By the 1830s, this was generally abandoned in favor of the winner-take-all, or “at large,” approach.

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The razor-thin 1968 presidential election roused credible support for constitutional change. This was long advocated, for example, by Maine U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. In 1969, the U.S. House of Representatives took the biggest step ever taken along these lines, voting 339 to 70 to enact the Bayh-Celler Act, which would have replaced the Electoral College with the popular vote. The measure failed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Against the backdrop of the same 1968 contest that seized interest at the national level, Maine in 1969 passed its own law designed to nudge the country in the direction of a popular vote. It provided for one vote allocated to the winner in each of the two congressional districts but with the remaining two going to the statewide winner. As former House Speaker John Martin recalled in an interview with this columnist, the bill was passed “with the assumption that other states would follow suit.”

So far, only Nebraska has done so. This it did in 1991.

Both the Maine and Nebraska laws have been commanding significant attention of late.

Maine’s landmark 1969 law was the brainchild of a 39-year old mill worker at Mattawamkeag’s Forster Manufacturing plant named S. Glenn Starbird Jr.

The Kingman Township Democrat, in his third term, was the sole sponsor of the bill. I first met Starbird at about this time. As a high school student who frequented State House deliberations, presidential politics were also likely more on his mind than that of the typical state legislator. That’s because the year before, along with seven other local Democratic leaders, he had won a random drawing to accompany presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey on a summer fishing trip in the Maine wilderness.

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Starbird’s paths and mine crossed from time to time over the ensuing years. The last such occasion was in 1987. We were both in Farmington working on separate projects at the registry of deeds.

At that time, I asked him across the street to my office for an informal visit. The walls were decorated with assorted memorabilia, and the item that most caught his attention was a poster promoting a 1947 lecture at Farmington State (now the University of Maine at Farmington) by “Famous Russian Democratic Statesman” Alexander Kerensky, then in exile in America since the overthrow of his regime in 1917. “I saw Kerensky speak at Orono that same week in 1947 when I was a student there,” Starbird recalled.

I have sometimes thought back on my last encounter with Starbird and this vicarious intersection between himself and Kerensky, both dedicated exponents of democratic procedures. My opportunity to pursue the subject further was lost on the occasion of his death from cancer in 1995 at the age of 66.

Starbird will never be remembered as much as either Margaret Chase Smith or Kerensky. His advancement of an election reform that is now seeing renewed national attention, however, is deservedly not forgotten.


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