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Pine tree or state seal? Maine voters will decide on state flag design this fall

In a January 2018 file photo, an original Maine flag design made by the Maine Flag Company in Portland sits on a table in the company's studio. The original flag sported just a pine tree and blue north star.
Troy R. Bennett
Bangor Daily News
In a January 2018 file photo, an original Maine flag design made by the Maine Flag Company in Portland sits on a table in the company's studio. The original flag sported just a pine tree and blue north star.

Maine voters will head to the polls this November to cast ballots for president, Congress and on an issue that has already sparked several years of impassioned debate — the design of the Maine state flag. 

Maine pretty much has two state flags right now. There's the official version in which the state seal — and its old-timey depictions of a fisherman and a farmer — is set against a deep-blue backdrop. And then there's an even older design featuring a green pine tree and a blue star against a light background.

Variations of the so-called Pine Tree Flag are everywhere these days: on hats, t-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs and, of course, flying atop many flagpoles.

Last year, after lengthy and sometimes contentious debate, state lawmakers voted to ask Maine residents which flag they preferred in a statewide referendum. That referendum would have happened last fall only Gov. Janet Mills "held" the bill before allowing it to become law without her signature, thereby pushing the referendum to this November.

But then state lawmakers voted this spring to push back the statewide vote until 2026 and, in the meantime, to allow the Secretary of State to work with a special commission to decide on the design of the Pine Tree Flag. However, Mills "pocket vetoed" that bill and 34 others because she disagreed with how the Legislature gave them final approval on a day that was supposed to be reserved for taking up her previous vetoes.

The result was that bill, LD 471, withered on the legislative vine and died. And that means the flag referendum is, once again, slated to take place in November during a presidential election year when Maine traditionally sees high voter turnout.

But first, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows will have to decide which version of the Pine Tree Flag to present to voters.

"The Legislature was very clear about the design of the new flag and it will be a model of the 1901 state flag with a pine tree and a star on a buff background," Bellows said Friday in an interview. "That being said, it will be important for voters to know what that looks like before they cast their ballots. The Legislature vested me with the responsibility of approving the model flag design and I plan to announce the process for making that decision soon."

Bellows had sought the delay until 2026 in order for the special commission to settle on the design.

"We have seen a lot of different versions of that design," Bellows said.

Maine did not have an official flag for the first 81 years of its existence as a state. The Pine Tree Flag was adopted in 1901 but was replaced eight years later with the current version.

During legislative debate over the issue in recent years, supporters of the current flag have said it better represents Maine's heritage as a fishing, farming and forestry state. In addition the depictions of a fishermen and a farmer, the state seal also shows a moose resting beneath a white pine, which is the official state tree. Supporters of the current flag also called the Pine Tree Flag cartoonish, although some versions show the pine tree and star in more detail.

Proponents of switching back to the 1901 version — or something similar — contend that Maine's current flag is barely distinguishable among the many other state flags featuring state seals. They also point out that the immense popularity of the Pine Tree Flag among Maine residents (and tourists) suggests people are ready for a change.