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John Martin: Examining the history of electoral votes

BDN Staff // Published February 15, 2008 in Bangor Daily News

Every four years, pundits discuss Maine’s method of allocating electoral votes, aptly named the Maine Method. While this has been an interesting history lesson for nearly 40 years, there have recently been people pointing to this solution as the solution to emulate for a fair election of the president. Proponents of a failed California citizen’s initiative pointed to Maine as the successful model for their state to emulate, disregarding the vast electoral vote difference (4 to 55) and the partisan implications it would have had for the 2008 election.

As the originator of the legislation that brought about the Maine Method, I’d like to set the record straight. We passed this legislation as an alternative to what the country really wanted: the direct election of the president. One person, one vote is a fundamental democratic principle that I strongly believe in, but our options at the time were limited.

The Maine Method needs to be examined beyond today’s short memory, and looked at through the eyes of the times. In 1968, we faced a violent and turbulent presidential election. Protesters were marching in the streets in opposition to the Vietnam War while the country lost Robert F. Kennedy, a strong voice for many opposed to the war.

Our faith in government, and by default ourselves, was being sorely tested. This tumultuous era sparked a movement to reform the Electoral College and put the power to elect the president directly in the hands of the people.

The founding fathers established the Electoral College as a means to balance the desires of some for the direct election of the president with that of others who felt Congress should elect the president. Additionally, mass transit and mass communication were more than a hundred years into the future meaning the average voter would have little opportunity to educate himself (yes, himself) on the candidates — assuming they could even read. It made sense logistically at the time to elect local representatives whose job it was to be responsible for making informed decisions about who should run the country. These representatives were called "electors" and their role continues today through the Electoral College.

In 1969, as today, the landscape and geography was vastly different. By then, television had eclipsed radio as the preferred method of communication; the first nationally televised presidential debates had already occurred; and literacy rates were quite high thanks to standardized public education. Voters could read and they had ample opportunity to educate themselves directly on who should lead the country.

In light of the political upheaval and the realities of the impact mass communication had on our ability to communicate with mainstream America, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment removing the Electoral College and requiring the direct election of the president.

There was strong support in the House, a strong movement behind the amendment and strong polling nationally in support of it. Led by Strom Thurmond, a couple of Southern segregationists launched a crusade to filibuster the amendment in the Senate.

Sadly, they succeeded.

At 28-years-old, I had already been a state representative for five years. I watched as our hopes for a more democratically elected president failed. As an individual state, Maine did not have the power to implement the direct election of the president, but we did have the power to allocate our electoral votes as we saw fit. I proposed legislation that would allocate our electoral votes by congressional district instead.

In 1969, the Maine Legislature passed my bill. Since then, our two Senate votes automatically go to the winner of the statewide popular vote, while our two congressional district votes are allocated based on the winner of the vote within the individual district. This means we can split our electoral votes 3 to 1.

Today, there is the National Popular Vote Compact Plan that brings us as close to the direct election of the president as we can get without a constitutional amendment. States join a compact agreeing that when the collective number of electoral votes reaches 270 (the number needed to win the presidency), all compact states would allocate their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. True to the idea of empowering people, this solution puts the power to elect the presidency in the hands of the people.

My commitment to empowering real people has not changed in the 40 years since introducing and passing the Maine Method. The tactics available to empower those people have. That is why I wholeheartedly endorse the National Popular Vote Compact Plan and have submitted legislation for Maine to join.

Maine is set to embrace the National Popular Vote Compact Plan, and as Maine goes … so should the nation.

John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, represents District 35 in the Maine Senate. He spent 20 years as Speaker of the House.