Article: Proposal Seeks to Ensure a Majority Governor for Maine

MPBN News

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AUGUSTA, Maine - Unlike some other states, Maine doesn't require that a candidate for governor get more than 50 percent of the vote to win. In fact, since 1970, only three Maine governors have exceeded that threshold of support.

And while Republican Gov. Paul LePage came close this past fall, winning reelection with 48 percent of the vote, he still cannot claim to be the choice of most voters. One lawmaker would like to raise the bar for future Maine governors.

Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says one need look no further than Vermont to find a state that requires its governors to win a majority vote to take office. Last fall in Vermont, Democrat Peter Shumlin defeated Republican Scott Milne by less than a half a percentage point.  Still, Shumlin's 46 percent still fell short of the constitutional threshold -- but the Vermont Constitution solved the problem.

"And if you had followed the news on MPBN, you would have known that under their constitutional construct, the Legislature determines the outcome if no candidate gets more than 50 percent," Dunlap says.

Portland Democrat Diane Russell says the Vermont model is one that her colleagues in the Maine House could consider, as they take up her proposed constitutional amendment that would require a majority vote in governors' races.

"I feel strongly that Mainers should be able to vote their hopes," Russell says, "and not their fears."

Russell says after two election cycles involving multiple candidates, too many voters have become concerned that by supporting their favorite choice, they could help elect someone they really don't like.

"And we see with the current winner-take-all system a spoiler effect, where independent voices try to come to the table but they are accused of being spoilers," she says. "And the debate centers mainly around strategic voting and who can win around polling issues. We're always talking about who can win and we're never talking about who should win."

There was a time when Maine did require a majority vote to win, but the threshold was reduced to a simple "plurality" after after a particularly contentious three-way race for governor in 1879. The race and recount were punctuated by close votes and ballot irregularities that prompted Democrats and Republicans to call up their own opposing militias that camped out in front of the Capitol.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says the standoff teetered on the brink of an armed takeover of the State House, until Democratic Gov. Alonzo Garcelon called in a favor from an old Civil War buddy: former Republican governor and Union Army Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain.

"So Garcelon called Chamberlain out of retirement to command the state reserves and take control of the Capitol to prevent an insurrection," Dunlap says. "They had snipers on the roof top of the Capitol building. They had cannon in the front door. Some versions say it was a Gatling gun - but anyway it was a piece of heavy artillery."

A less dramatic solution in 2015, says Rep. Russell, might be the adoption of so-called "ranked choice voting" on multiple candidates. That involves successive rounds of elimination until a majority winner emerges. Or she says lawmakers could also consider run-offs to reach the majority threshold.

But the idea of simply abandoning the Constitution's plurality provision is not something that the Legislature's State and Local Government Committee is apt to take lightly when it reviews the bill later this year. Independent Jeffrey Evagelos, of Friendship, is a member of the panel.

"I'll keep an open mind on her proposal," Evangelos says, "but there are some constitutional hurdles that we'll have to overcome to get there."

The constitutional amendment would require an even higher threshold of support: a two-thirds vote in both the Maine House and Senate and the approval of Maine voters.

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