In the parlance of the 21st century it was a “9/11” election. Just 100 years ago, when Maine conducted its statewide voting on the second Monday of September each year, occurred one of the state’s more eventful plebiscites.
Though no one on Sept. 11, 1911, the date of the election, could foretell that 90 years to the day later would this place on the calendar assume such notoriety, the occasion was still a historic one.
On the ballot were a number of issues that stirred the electorate. They included the proposal to create a primary election system, which was a recent amendment to the state’s Constitution which enabled l2,000 voters to force a referendum on a citizen-initiated measure. The first time voters did just that was with their petitions seeking to compel Maine to adopt the direct primary as a means of nominating candidates.
The new proposal sought to replace the caucus and convention method. Under this system, voting was done publicly by delegates so that those participating were perceived to be vulnerable to potential intimidation by party bosses. Primaries, which would be done by secret ballot, were seen as averting this risk and were heralded as a means of drawing a larger turnout.
Opponents to the plan argued that primary campaigns would be so expensive that only the wealthy could run. But by a better than 3-to-1 ratio the bill became law and Maine joined the 20 other states that already had enacted such a measure.
Another ballot measure concerned alcohol. Long before the nation’s “noble experiment” with prohibition in the 1920s, Maine had enacted its own ban on intoxicating liquors, so early in fact that its l850s law to stamp out booze made the state an international pioneer: Other countries that sought to emulate us were referred to as having adopted a “Maine Law.”
In the 1880s, some 30 years after putting the law on the books, the Legislature proposed cementing the state’s “dry” status by offering a constitutional amendment for prohibition. Maine voters in l884 overwhelmingly ratified the prohibition amendment, enshrining the state’s dry status in a constitutional safe haven.
The Sept. 11, 1911, election was a crossroads in the prohibition saga, one that drew the interest of luminaries throughout the world and one that also would foreshadow similar confrontations in the years leading up to the nationwide adoption of spirituous abstinence in 1919.
By 1911, the Democrats were back in power for the first time in decades. Though prohibition had been a bulwark of Republican principles, Democratic leaders were eager to let the voters weigh in on whether to keep prohibition in the state’s Constitution. They saw repeal as paving the way for local option voting on the issue.
In sending the repeal of the 1884 amendment out to a statewide vote, they set the stage for the most emotionally charged feature of the 1911 elections, one that witnessed the first statewide voting on prohibition in l7 years.
“Dry” forces urging defeat of repeal included Portland’s Lillian M.N. Stevens, longtime national president of the influential Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The Sunday before the election, Stevens led a parade of children through Portland in an effort to put the spotlight on alcohol’s most sympathetic and defenseless victims.
Despite the fact that neither her juvenile followers nor Stevens’ WCTU adherents were eligible to cast ballots on the issue, their position prevailed. By a cliff-hanging 60,853 to 60,095 vote the adult men who did participate voted to retain prohibition.
Over the next eight years, the rest of the nation would follow suit. Maine’s 26th amendment would not be repealed until 1934, just a year after the end of its 14-year national reign.
Sept. 11 this year was an occasion to note the anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks. Not to be overlooked, however, is a memorable Maine election for which we on the same day can observe a 100th anniversary.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington lawyer who writes historical analyses of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.