A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
The board that would oversee Maine’s electric distribution system under Question 3 on November’s ballot would add a unique layer to our politics, creating a new political entity whose members would represent large and divided areas.
Outside of the last presidential election in the 2nd Congressional District and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ victory in 2020, Maine has been a firmly Democratic state since Gov. Janet Mills took over more than four years ago. That party would also have an edge in these new elections.
Democrats would be hampered a little because a large share of their voters are in southern Maine. Republicans are fewer in number but more evenly dispersed throughout the state, giving them an outside shot to win at least four of the seven districts based on my analysis of 2022 voter registration data. Three of the districts look like tossups.
How it works: Under the proposal, seven elected board members each representing five Maine Senate districts would effectively assume the role that Central Maine Power Co. and Versant Power serve now. There would be party primaries for these nominations as well.
Those seven people would appoint six experts who would also serve as voting members of the new utility, making the elected members just a little bit more powerful than the others.
Some of these districts would be massive. For example, only one person would represent all of Aroostook and Piscataquis counties, plus Millinocket and western Penobscot County into almost all of Somerset County and the Farmington area. Bangor would be grouped into a region including all of Hancock and Washington counties. On the other hand, four districts would contain parts of either Cumberland or York counties.
The politics: Democrats have a massive voter registration advantage in the district that would contain Portland, with a 32-percentage-point edge on Republicans. They would also have healthy 14- and 12-point leads in two seats based in Lewiston and York County, respectively. The only strong seat for Republicans is the one in northern Maine, where they have a 14-point edge on Democrats.
Assuming Democrats sweep their three strong seats and Republicans take their one, control of the board will run through the other areas. The Bangor-based district is a true toss-up, with Democrats having only a 0.8-point edge there. In an Augusta-based district including Waldo, Knox and Lincoln counties, they have only a 2-point edge. Republicans have a 4-point edge in a district including Waterville, Auburn and almost all of Oxford County.
But, but, but: The question, which is being pushed by the political group Our Power and is opposed by CMP and Versant, needs to pass for any of this to matter. If it does, the entire question could be delayed as part of a legal battle that could take between five and 10 years to settle. A CMP-backed question on the ballot seeks to force another vote on the takeover.
There are also lots of caveats about the elections. There would be party primaries, and Democrats or Republicans could gain advantages by picking the right candidates.
The board would also not have unchecked authority. Like the current utilities, it would not control power generation. It would also be overseen by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Once the board sets up, its first orders of business would be appointing expert members, plus getting into grid planning, financing the billions in borrowing needed to buy infrastructure and contracting with companies that would help run the system.
What’s next: Adding new elections to Maine’s political system is still a major move. Candidates would be eligible for public financing, and lots of money could come into the state during these races for staggered six-year terms.
Proponents argue this would improve responsiveness to the public, while the utilities argue it would politicize the grid. We will soon see where voters land.