March 22, 2019
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Why Maine’s Electoral College rules were important this year

A man marks a star on the Electoral College map during a U.S. Election Watch event hosted by the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 9 at a hotel in Seoul, South Korea.

AUGUSTA, Maine — President-elect Donald Trump’s election victory becomes official Dec. 19, when Electoral College members convene in state capitols to sign their votes on six certificates that go to four different federal and state officials.

This year, for the first time, Maine’s two congressional districts split on presidential preference. Democrat Hillary Clinton earned three electors as the statewide and 1st District winner, and Trump earned one elector by winning the 2nd District.

This historic election is now fulfilling a vision and a fear of two Maine politicians from a bygone era — one a rural Democrat, the other an urban Republican — who served in the Legislature when the state’s unique Electoral College laws were enacted in the late 1960s.

It also is putting Maine’s lone Republican elector in the spotlight. He reports having been pressured to change his vote to Clinton, something many on the left are calling for after Clinton earned at least 1.5 million votes more than Trump.

Most of all, though, Dec. 19 promises to be a hard day for Democratic electors, two of whom in Maine were caucus supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and one who cast a historic Electoral College vote 42 years ago — and is now on a much different side of history.

A majority of Maine’s members of the Electoral College will be voting for the losing candidate.

Electors are picked at the state party conventions. For Maine Democrats, it’ll be former Maine Treasurer Samuel Shapiro of Waterville and Florida, Diane Denk, a national party committeewoman from Kennebunk, and David Bright, a farmer from Dixmont. Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett of Oxford will cast the Trump vote.

Denk and Bright were both delegates to the Democratic National Convention this year, and both supported Sanders in the primary over Clinton.

Bright said he wishes he’d be casting a vote for Sanders “because that means the Democrats would have won the election,” and Denk said Trump is “every bit as dangerous as what we thought he was” during the campaign.

“It will not be a happy trip on Dec. 19th,” she said.

The 89-year-old Shapiro was a consummate insider in Augusta, serving as treasurer from 1981 to 1996 after 13 years as the party’s treasurer. This will be his fifth time in the Electoral College in the last seven elections going back to 1992.

He also was an elector in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson became only the second Democrat to win Maine since Woodrow Wilson ran a three-way race in 1912 against former President Theodore Roosevelt — who lost Maine by just over 2,600 votes — and Republican William Howard Taft.

Now, Shapiro will be on the other side of history, casting a vote for Clinton in Maine’s first electoral split. It also is the first election since George H.W. Bush won the state in 1988 in which a Republican gets a Maine electoral vote.

Shapiro said he’s never voted for a Republican presidential candidate and supported Clinton, and as a Jew, he said he’s disturbed by Trump’s hiring of Stephen Bannon — who has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League for embracing anti-semitism — to a top White House position.

But he said he thought about voting for Trump, saying he’s “very optimistic the fact that it’s not going to be as bad as the protesters seem to think,” and that Maine’s 2nd District is made up of “hard-working people in the middle,” and Clinton “just didn’t hit them right.”

“I don’t want to be drummed out of the party, but I think Trump the president will be different than Trump the campaigner,” he said.

The law that enshrined Maine’s electoral split was designed to push the country toward a popular vote — which Trump lost.

Maine is one of two states to split its electors by district because of a man largely forgotten by history: Glenn Starbird Jr., who was a Democratic state representative from Kingman Township.

In 1968, another three-way race came: Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine was the vice presidential nominee for Hubert Humphrey, who won Maine but lost to Republican Richard Nixon in part because of a split with George Wallace, the segregationist former Alabama governor who carried five southern states.

The next year, Starbird proposed a bill to change Maine’s winner-takes-all allocation by creating four electoral districts in Maine and allocating one vote to each. But the bill was redrafted by a committee to reflect the current method of allocating two electors to the statewide winner and one to each district winner.

It got little media attention and debate in the Maine Legislature. Democratic Gov. Kenneth Curtis allowed it to become law without his signature. He favored a popular vote but told the press that he allowed it to pass “in the spirit of helping in the development of a wise national judgment on our future course in the election of a president and a vice-president.”

This year, Trump joined a group with four past presidents that have been elected without winning the popular vote — which was what changes such as Maine’s were designed to prevent. But it never caught on nationally, with only Nebraska adopting it and standing alone with Maine to this day.

On the Maine Senate floor in 1969, Sen. Bennett Katz, R-Augusta, called it “our first attempt to go in the direction of popular election of the president of the United States.”

“From the Republican point of view, this means that in a Democratic sweep we still can salvage one of the electoral votes, and the opposite is also true,” he said.

In Maine, that’s what happened, but Katz, who died in 2007, couldn’t have seen something like 2016 coming. His son, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, was the first prominent Maine Republican to say he wouldn’t vote for Trump after his nomination.

The younger Katz said in the 1970s, his father kicked around an idea for a novel about the stealing of the Electoral College, saying he was worried about the chance for threats, bribes or other mischief around the president’s selection.

“He never ended up doing it, but I know he was concerned about the chance for the will of the people not being followed,” Roger Katz said.

Some are pushing for the Electoral College to go rogue and elect Clinton. It’s illegal, but it’s unenforceable in Maine.

The elder Katz may have proved prescient. As part of a disparate movement, Trump electors have been lobbied to switch their votes, including Bennett, who said he’s gotten “a few” from Maine and out of state. Some, including in Michigan, have gotten death threats.

The Electoral College does leave some room for shenanigans in the form of “faithless electors” — or those who don’t vote for their party’s candidate. There have only been 157 in U.S. history, according to FairVote.

It has never happened in Maine, which is one of 29 states with laws that bind delegates to their party’s candidate. But there’s a catch. While some states would fine or disqualify electors who go rogue, there’s no such penalty in Maine.

Therefore, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, said his office wouldn’t have a mechanism to enforce the law. He probably won’t have to.

Don’t expect Bennett to vote for Clinton: He said “people willfully disobeying the law would tear whatever social fabric we have asunder.”

Shapiro and Denk said they’ll certainly vote for Clinton. Bright said that’s his plan, barring some unforeseen Republican abandonment of Trump that would send the election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Then, he could vote for Sanders, since the House would choose from the top three candidates.

While this would make Dec. 19 more interesting, it’s still a moonshot.


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