Maine could join growing movement for a national popular vote in presidential elections

Photo: A ballot dropbox outside Kennebunk Town Hall | Beacon

Democracy advocates in Maine are backing recently-released legislation that — if enacted by enough states around the country — would essentially bypass the Electoral College, which since 2000 has elevated to the White House two candidates who lost the national popular vote.

LD 1578, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Bell (D-Yarmouth), would adopt the Interstate Compact, an agreement among states to ensure that the winner of the national popular vote in a presidential election actually wins the election. Under the terms of the compact, participating states’ electoral votes would be awarded not to the victor of the presidential election in that particular state, but to the winner of the popular vote in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. 

However, the agreement would only take effect when states that collectively control a majority of Electoral College votes — 270 — enact the agreement, therefore guaranteeing under that scenario that the winner of the popular vote would also win the Electoral College and therefore the presidency. So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia have enacted the agreement, totaling 195 electoral votes. Maine’s four electoral votes would bring that sum to 199. 

Local advocates say joining the national popular vote compact would be a crucial step toward enhancing democracy and the principle of one person, one vote. 

“We are excited to see legislation reintroduced for Maine to pass the National Popular Vote,” said Anna Kellar, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine. “We know that Mainers believe that every vote for president should be equal, and Maine passing the National Popular Vote will be an important step towards this becoming reality.”

The Electoral College system functions by awarding the winner of individual states in a presidential election a slate of electors pledged to ultimately vote for that candidate. Each state is given a number of electoral votes equal to how many members of Congress that state has. Once a candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, they win the election. A few places — Maine and Nebraska — have a slightly different process in which they award two electoral votes to the winner of the state as a whole but allocate their remaining electoral votes based on the victor in each of their congressional districts. 

Over the years, problems with the Electoral College system have become clear, prompting increased calls for reform. For example, twice in the span of 16 years, a candidate was elected president despite their opponent receiving more overall votes. 

One such instance occurred in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by winning 271 Electoral College votes to Gore’s 266, even though Gore won 48.4% of the popular vote compared to Bush’s 47.9%. History repeated itself in 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by winning a majority of electoral votes despite the fact that Clinton garnered nearly 3 million more overall votes than Trump.  

The Electoral College map in 2016. Red signifies states won by Donald Trump, and blue signifies states won by Hillary Clinton | Screenshot via 270toWin

Bell, the sponsor of the Interstate Compact bill in Maine, said the candidate who gets the most votes should be the winner of the presidential election, arguing that the Electoral College is outdated and must be changed. 

“It seems nonsensical in today’s modern world that we have to rely on this archaic system,” he said, adding that his bill “is an opportunity to make people feel … like their vote is going to count just as much as anybody else’s will. One person, one vote.” 

Bell said he was also motivated to introduce LD 1578 after Trump’s attempt to subvert the Electoral College and overturn his loss to President Joe Biden in 2020 spurred the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

“It just breeds distrust between the American electorate and the government,” he said of the current system. 

Along with those issues, critics have also surfaced a number of additional problems with the Electoral College. One is that it gives disproportionate sway to smaller states. For example, the least populated state in the country — Wyoming, which has 576,851 people — gets three electoral votes, or 1 electoral vote for every 192,283 people. By contrast, the country’s most populous state — California, which has over 39 million people — gets 55 electoral votes, which breaks down to 1 electoral vote for every 718,876 people. 

This creates a conservative bias in the Electoral College — as Republicans often do better in smaller, rural states — with one expert estimating that a Democratic presidential candidate has to win the national popular vote by at least 3% to have a 50-50 chance of winning the Electoral College. 

In addition, because of the winner-take-all nature of the electoral votes in most areas of the country, the system has created a paradigm where candidates focus the vast majority of their time and resources on a handful of “swing states,” with politicians often entirely avoiding states that typically favor one party or another. 

Furthermore, the origins of the Electoral College are extremely problematic, as the system was originally designed to benefit white voters in southern states that had slavery. 

Bell’s bill isn’t the first attempt in Maine to join the movement to bypass the Electoral College, as a similar initiative was considered by lawmakers in 2019. Although the measure passed in the Senate, it was ultimately defeated in the House after some Democrats joined with Republicans to sink the bill. 

Advocates hope for a better outcome for the current measure, which has a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Matt Pouliot of Kennebec County, and is also being co-sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Aroostook) and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland).  

As of Friday, the bill had not yet been scheduled for a public hearing, Bell said. 

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