Does the Electoral College have you stumped, especially the part about Maine and Nebraska being the only two states that can divvy up their electoral votes among presidential candidates? Here’s a quick refresher course.

The concept of electors was developed by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between having the president elected by the U.S. Congress and election by popular vote, according to the National Archives and Registration Administration. Today, the college consists of 538 electors representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The number of electors mirrors each state’s total of U.S. senators and representatives, so Maine has four.

Political parties select potential electors, who on Election Day are chosen based on the results of the popular vote. In most states, it’s winner take all. If a candidate carries the popular vote, all the electors are from the same party.

So why is Maine one of only two states that can split its electoral votes?

Here’s the story:

Massachusetts first used the splitting method, called the congressional district method, in the elections of 1804, 1812, and 1820. After seceding from Massachusetts and becoming an independent state in 1820, Maine used this method through the election of 1828. The state then adopted the winner-take-all method employed in the rest of the country in presidential elections after that until 1972, when it resumed the congressional district method.

What brought the older method back?

The presidential election of 1968 in which there was a three-way contest among Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey, and independent George Wallace brought to a head in Maine some of the national calls for reform of the electoral college system. Reformists claimed the three-way race (won by Nixon) made the winner-takes-all method unfair and distanced the outcome from what the people really indicated in the popular vote.

Rep. S. Glenn Starbird Jr., D-Kingman, heard the cries and introduced a bill to the 104th Maine Legislature in January 1969 that would change Maine’s method of applying its electoral votes back to the congressional district method, which many political pundits considered to be closer to the ideal democracy of one person, one vote.

It was a time of many changes in Maine and the nation, so there was not a lot of discussion about this bill, at least according to newspaper archives. The country was deeply mired in the Vietnam War, and the state was dealing with many issues at the time. Among the bills considered and ultimately passed in Maine that session were: changing the legal voting age from 21 to 20, which had to go to state referendum; establishing the Maine income tax; adopting a new way for the state to dole out school subsidies; passing a drunken driving law; and instituting the State Housing Authority.

The return to the congressional district method of casting electoral votes for the president was overshadowed by all of these issues, and passed with little notice. It became law in 1969, but would not be used until the next presidential election, which was in 1972.

In order to understand how this method works, NARA offers the following example: “Maine has four electoral votes and two congressional districts. It awards one electoral vote per congressional district and two by the statewide, ‘at-large’ vote. It is possible for Candidate A to win the first district and receive one electoral vote, Candidate B to win the second district and receive one electoral vote, and Candidate C, who finished a close second in both the first and second districts, to win the two at-large electoral votes. Although this is a possible scenario, it has not actually occurred in recent elections.”

In fact, Maine has not split its electoral votes since the law was enacted.

In Nebraska, which has used this method since 1992, “the five electoral votes are distributed in the same manner: two based on the statewide vote, and three based on the results in congressional districts.” Like Maine, Nebraska has yet to split its votes since adopting this system.

According to NARA:

The term “Electoral College” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. Article II and the 12th Amendment refer to “electors,” but not to the “Electoral College.” In the Federalist Papers (No. 68), Alexander Hamilton refers to the process of selecting the executive, and refers to “the people of each State [who] shall choose a number of persons as electors,” but he does not use the term “Electoral College.”

The founders appropriated the concept of electors from the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806). An elector was one of a number of princes of the various German states within the Holy Roman Empire who had a right to participate in the election of the German king (who generally was crowned as emperor). The term “college” (from the Latin collegium), refers to a body of people that acts as a unit, as in the college of cardinals who advise the pope and vote in papal elections.

In the early 1800s, the term “Electoral College” came into general usage in the U.S. as the unofficial designation for the group of citizens selected to cast votes for president and vice president. It was first written into federal law in 1845, and today the term appears in Title III, United States Code, Section 4 in the section heading and in the text as “college of electors.”

More information on the electoral college appears in a Newspapers in Education supplemental page in today’s paper.

Source: Office of the Federal Register, the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Julie Harris

Julie Harris has served in many roles at Bangor Daily News since she joined the staff in 1979, but is now on its senior editor team and editor of five of BDN's weeklies and their associated websites, including...