There is no doubt that our Founding Fathers feared tyranny of the majority, which is why they took intentional steps while framing our Constitution to establish a system of representative government. While most evident in our nation’s legislative body, the Congress, the principle of representative government also extends to the election of our chief executive, the President of the United States.
The system our founders developed for electing presidents is today called the Electoral College (interestingly enough, this specific terminology for the body selected to cast votes for president and vice president was not codified into federal law until 1845.) The system itself is a compromise between having Congress elect the president and electing the president through a national popular vote.
Under the Electoral College, every state receives an elector for each member in its congressional delegation, and the electors are selected by the political parties to which the candidates in a presidential election belong. To be declared the winner in a presidential election, a candidate must receive 270 of the 538 votes cast by the electors.
This process offers fair and proportional representation of each state and ensures the electors reflect the will of the voters within these jurisdictions. That is why it is so troubling that lawmakers on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Friday are considering two bills, LDs 418 and 816, which would bind Maine’s Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote. A move in this direction would effectively eliminate the influence Maine voters currently have in presidential elections.
Maine is one of only two states that currently split their Electoral College votes. Instead of awarding all of the state’s four Electoral College votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, as do most states, Maine gives half of its votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote. The two remaining votes are awarded separately to the winner of the popular vote in both of Maine’s congressional districts.
It should be noted that in 2016, for the first time in our state’s history since re-enacting this method of allotting Electoral College votes, Maine sent an Electoral College vote to more than one candidate. That is because President Donald Trump received one vote from Maine’s Second Congressional District.
This method of awarding electors is perhaps the most fair and unique process in the country. It draws criticism because of the major political parties’ penchant for gerrymandering, but still remains the most representational method under the Electoral College (certainly in comparison to winner-take-all). In other words, this obstacle can be hurdled with fairly drawn congressional districts.
What makes the split vote system so great, especially in a state with only four electors like Maine, is that it requires candidates to engage with voters throughout the state in tight presidential elections. The political differences of Maine’s First and Second Congressional Districts are well-documented. Some refer to it as the “Two Maines” and others call it the “North-South Dichotomy”, but both terms accurately describe the political contrasts that exist in different regions of our state and run parallel to the larger complexities of urban vs. rural divide.
By adopting a system that allows each congressional district to send an elector to the candidate that voters within the district have chosen to lead the country, presidential candidates have incentive to visit both rural and urban areas of Maine; hence why President Trump bothered to visit Lisbon, of all places, on the 2016 campaign trail.
On the other hand, moving toward a National Popular Vote system would effectively make the votes cast by Mainers in presidential elections – regardless of residency – meaningless. According to the New York Times, Maine voters cast 747,927 votes in the 2016 presidential election. There were approximately 135.5 million total votes cast nationwide.
If the National Popular Vote system was in place in Maine for this election, all four of Maine’s electors would have been declared for Hillary Clinton as the winner of the national popular vote. Yet the votes cast by Maine voters would account for only 0.55 percent of all votes, meaning Mainers’ votes would have a minuscule impact on where the state ultimately sends all four of its Electoral College votes.
Because we account for such a tiny portion of the population, every Maine citizen could vote for Candidate A under a National Popular Vote system, but if Candidate B won the national popular vote, the state would be forced to bind all four of its Electoral College votes to Candidate B.
Regardless of your presidential politics, it’s hard to see how this system would be more fair and representative of the interests of all Mainers. For the Electoral College votes we award to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district, the denominator in this equation is much, much smaller, meaning the voice of every Mainer is far more impactful.
And at the end of the day, the most important questions we should be asking are: Is the design of the National Popular Vote system superior to the one we currently employ? Would it give Mainers greater voice in the outcome of presidential elections?
To both of these questions, the answer is undoubtedly, “No.”