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As Maine's Unique 'Constitutional Officer' Elections Loom, a Push to Change the Process

AUGUSTA, Maine - Democratic and Republican contenders for Maine's three so-called "constitutional officer" positions met with new Maine lawmakers today in an effort to win their  bids for the posts of attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer.

Maine is the only state in the nation in which constitutional officers are elected by the Legislature. But  there are some behind-the-scenes efforts to change that centuries-old process.

When the new 127th Maine Legislature convenes tomorrow, the next biggest event - after lawmakers take their oaths of office - will be to decide who should serve as state attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state. And among American states, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap says that process distinguishes Maine as an outlier.

"Maine's the only state that elects all of its constitutional officers by a ballot of the Legislature," Dunlap says. "Why that is? Not really sure."

Dunlap theorizes the procedure goes back to 1819 when Maine was preparing to shelve its status as a province of Massachusetts, and legislative votes were the most widely accepted way of selecting candidates for higher office.

Today more than two-thirds of the states choose their secretaries of state and attorneys general through a popular vote, while others leave the selection to the governor. Tennessee requires its Supreme Court to select the attorney general, a position that can be both high-profile and controversial.

During the last two years as attorney general, former Maine Democratic Party Vice-Chair Janet Mills has had her share of run-ins with Republican Gov. Paul LePage over Medicaid expansion and a few other issues. LePage says he's had it with the Legislature electing the attorney general.

"That needs to be fixed," LePage says. "And if they don't do it upstairs, I'm going to lead a referendum to elect the attorney general by popular vote."

LePage can shine a spotlight on the constitutional officer issue, but changing the process is complicated. As a constitutional amendment, such a bill would require two-thirds support by lawmakers and approval by the voters. Still, some Democrats and Republicans who are concerned about the number of qualified candidates for statewide office see the constitutional officer positions as potential stepping stones to higher office.

Democratic State Sen. Bill Diamond, of Windham, is a former Maine secretary of state.

"There are good points and bad points about having this as an elected statewide office," Diamond says. "You then limit it to pretty much those who can afford to run a statewide election, you limit it, probably, I'm guessing, to someone who really has the time and experience to run for a statewide election. It's awfully hard for newbie to come in and do that sort of thing. On the other hand, the way it is now, if you don't have connections with the Legislature, you pretty much don't have a chance of winning it."

Democrats took a hard hit in the last election cycle, losing a half-dozen seats and the majority in the Senate, several more seats in the House, the governor's race and the 2nd Congressional District, where a former constitutional officer, Republican Treasurer Bruce Poliquin defeated six-term Democratic lawmaker Emily Cain. The importance of Poliquin's constitutional office in that race may be a point of discussion among some, but Democratic Party State Chair Phil Bartlett says his party does not need the constitutional officer posts to groom statewide candidates.

"I think on the Democratic side, we do have a fairly deep bench," Bartlett says. "We've got a lot of folks who are working hard who have run for office, and folks who share our values who are prepared to step up and run, so I don't think we need it in terms of building a bench for the Democratic Party."

"If this is going to happen, there's probably no better time for this to happen than right now in Maine politics," says University of Maine Political Science Professor Mark Brewer.

Brewer says he believes voter sentiment is probably on LePage's side when it comes to popularly electing the attorney general, and possibly the secretary of state and treasurer as well. And Brewer says that, with recent elections producing competing majorities and split Legislatures, putting the constitutional officers out to a popular vote is the best democratic option - and that's with a small "d."