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Bill joining Maine in popular vote compact narrowly clears House

Caution tape closes off a voting stall to help distance voters to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus during Election Day at the East End School, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Caution tape closes off a voting stall to help distance voters to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus during Election Day at the East End School, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Portland, Maine.

A bill that would have Maine pledge its Electoral College votes based on the national popular vote for president cleared the state House of Representatives on Tuesday by the narrowest of margins, 73-72.

The proposal is now one step closer to reaching Gov. Janet Mills, who has yet to say if she supports it.

The measure would join Maine with an interstate compact in which each state agrees to assign its Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, even if the popular vote in one of those states is for another candidate.

Republicans fiercely oppose it, describing the scheme as an end run around the U.S. Constitution and one that would diminish Maine's influence in presidential elections while also subjugating its views and priorities to states with more people.

But Democratic Rep. Steve Moriarty, of Cumberland, argued that the Electoral College system already reduces Maine's standing in presidential elections because it has just four electoral votes and because roughly a half-dozen swing states routinely determine the winner of the presidency.

And he says Maine voters already express their priorities through congressional elections.

"But when we turn our attention to the election of the president of the country, we're not voting just as Mainers, we're voting as Americans," he said.

So far, 16 states have voted to join the popular vote compact, which would only be activated if the collective membership has enough electoral votes to elect the president -- 270 total.

The proposal now moves to the Maine Senate, which gave it initial approval in March.

However, Mills, a Democrat, has not yet taken a position and a veto could sink the measure.

Some polls suggest that a majority of Americans favor abandoning the Electoral College to elect the president in favor of a national popular vote winner. Doing so would mean amending the U.S. Constitution through a constitutional convention. The partisan divide over such a change has prompted supporters of the national popular vote to instead organize a coalition of states that pledge to allocate their votes according to the country's presidential preference.

The push is borne out of a sense that the Electoral College system gives disproportionate influence to states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Arizona in electing the president. Additionally, while only five presidents have won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote, two have done so since 2016, including former President Donald Trump.

Supporters of retaining the current system have argued that Maine's standing in the presidential races will be further diminished.

Presidential candidates have traditionally not made Maine a priority destination. However, Trump did so in 2016 when he held several rallies here. Maine is one of just two states that can split its Electoral College votes by congressional district, meaning a candidate can garner one vote if they win one of the state's two congressional districts — even if they lose statewide. Trump was the first candidate do that in 2016 and he did it again in 2020.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.