As Maine Goes… History of Maine’s Voting Laws

By Linda Lord

MaineStateSealTo celebrate Maine Statehood day (March 15), the League of Women Voters of Maine delved into the history of voting and constitutional amendments in Maine. With Ranked Choice Voting on the ballot and as we experience a wave of legislative and citizen-led reforms, we wanted to know more about how Maine’s voting laws have changed. We posed several questions to noted Maine historian Herbert Adams and his answers are below. One thing is certain: Mainer’s have never been shy about changing our political process or even our constitution – especially in the name of expanding voting rights and access.

Question 1

LWVME: What was voting process when Maine incorporated? (See answer to question 3 for additional information regarding this question.)

Adams: In 1831, Maine was one of the FIRST states in the Union to move toward establishing a truly secret ballot. That year, the Legislature passed a law requiring that all ballots be white – and not the different colors for different political parties it had been before so that no observer could tell whom you voted for just by watching colors. This was considered a great leap toward true secret balloting in the Jacksonian Era, when the Right to Vote expanded exponentially – for white males, at least. 

When going to vote, one entered the voting place (often a Maine saloon or general store) announced his name loudly, received a ballot, and deposited it in boxes or glass globes in front of anyone watching– including nosy neighbors, ward heelers, and party bosses.  Curtains, booths, and the genuine Australian ballot (i.e. secret ballot) did not become the norm in Maine until the 1890’s.

Question 2

LWVME: Has Maine changed the way we vote before? (This question precipitated by the Rank Choice Voting ballot question for November 2016).

Adams: Yes, several times. Political primaries were established in Maine by act of the Legislature ca. 1913, as part of Maine’s Progressive Era reforms. In general, the reforms gave more control to the average voter and removed control of certain parts of the political process from the established powers. This included creating the Maine political party primary, the Initiative and Referendum, and the People’s Veto – instruments all still used. And, as times changed, Maine also changed the terms of elected Governors and Legislators.

From 1820 to 1880, Maine elected Governors and Legislators every single year for one-year terms. (Governor Joshua Chamberlain served four terms as Governor; all were one-year terms. 

In 1879, voters approved a State Constitutional Amendment that changing the term for governor to two years. From 1880- 1958, Maine governors served two-year terms. Then, in 1957, voters approved another Amendment and the 4-year terms was adopted with a cap of 2 consecutive terms at a time. This went into effect in September 1958.  (Gov. Clinton Clauson, who died in office, was the first Maine Governor elected to a four-year term.)  The Legislature remains elected for two-year terms.

Question 3

LWVME: Has Maine voting Age always been 18?

Adams: No. Maine’s voting age has been lowered twice. 

When Maine became a state in 1820, our state constitution (written in Oct. 1819) was considered very liberal and oriented toward the common man. It guaranteed every male citizen of Maine at age 21 the right to vote. NOTE: This was without regard to race. And, there were no religious or property requirements to vote, as there were in Massachusetts, from which we broke away in 1820.

At the same time, despite the fact both women and Native Americans made spirited presentations about their rights to the Maine State Constitutional Convention in Portland, they were not granted the right to vote upon Statehood. Women did not receive the Right to Vote until 1920, and Native Americans until 1925 (in Federal Elections) and 1965 (in all Maine state elections).

Maine lowered the state voting age to 20 in 1970, a bit ahead of the Feds. In 1969, both chambers of the Legislature had approved it by a vote of 2/3. The Amendment went out to voters who approved it 167,660 to 117,668. 

The 26th Amendment to the US Constitution lowered the voting age to 18, when ratified by the states July 1, 1971. The Maine Constitution reflects this change in Art. 2, Sect. 1.

Question 4

LWVME: Did Maine have a primary or caucus system when it became a state in 1820?

Adams: Maine’s system was closer to a Caucus in 1820, though not necessarily what we think of as a caucus today. 

For Maine state offices, the party leaders (and the party faithful) gathered and chose their party candidates for Governor, State Senate, and State Representative, and for Secretary of State, Attorney General, and State Treasurer. These were NOT party events open to all adherents – these were meetings among the party bigwigs and insiders. They often chose each other and so many of the familiar names for office are repeated among the faithful for the early years of Statehood. 

Maine instituted public party primaries by law, around 1913 – one of the Progressive Era’s greatest clean government reforms. Party insiders, whether Democrat or Republican, hated them because they opened the system to input from all voters.

As a side note, Maine’s political parties were very different then. The overwhelming majority of Mainers were Jeffersonians from 1820 to ca. 1840s. There were all stripes and kinds of Jeffersonians in Maine so, in effect, you had two political parties under one roof. The Whigs then appeared in Maine as a strong opposition party around 1840. When slavery entered the political equation in the 1850’s, it was a hot-button issue and it destroyed the Jeffersonians and Whigs in Maine, and gave birth to the Republicans, who essentially ran the state from 1854- 1955. The Republican insiders at that time caucused among themselves to choose nominees for office, just like the Jeffersonians had.

Question 5

LWVME: Has there been another time when there was so much activity around how to vote?

Adams: The Progressive Era in Maine and the U.S. may be our closest parallel – with an important difference, discussed below.

Maine’s Progressive Era may roughly be stated as from ca. 1907 to 1913, when public opinion swept a number of “Direct Democracy” reforms into state law and constitution. Even seen as part of a national wave, Maine stood out as unique.

Maine was the FIRST state East of the Mississippi to add the Initiative and Referendum to its constitution (1908) and was the 4th state overall. (Utah 1900; Oregon 1902; Montana 1904; Maine 1908)

All the major Maine political parties of the day – Republican, Democratic, Socialist and Prohibition – eventually endorsed some version of most of these reforms. 

Overall, Maine emerged as a moderate reform state. Many of these reforms, even if initiated by citizens, were filtered through the state legislative process. Maine placed the following voter powers directly into the state constitution:

  • The Initiative and Referendum – the people’s power to make laws without a legislature.
  • The People’s Veto – to people’s power to veto laws without a governor
  • Direct Political Primaries – in state law, the people’s power to vote directly in political party primaries and choose candidates by a public process. 

Question 6

LWVME: Are Maine Citizens more politically engaged now?

Adams: If voter turnout in Presidential election years is used as the standard, Maine consistently ranks as one of the very best high-voting states in the United States. From 1992 to 2008, Maine was one of only 5 states in the United States to achieve over 70 % voter turnout. In 2012, Maine was still in the top six states, edged out by fractional percentages elsewhere. 

Why? Political scientists credit Maine’s easy voter registration process and same-day voter registration option, adopted in 1973.

This is the record as follows: 

  • 1992 – Maine # 1 in the US, at 61 % turnout.
  • 1996 – Maine # 1 in the US, at 64 %
  • 2000 – Maine # 2 in the US, at 67.34 %
  • 2004 – Maine # 2 in the US, at 73.4 %
  • 2008 – Maine # 3 in all US, at 72.7 % (Maine was one of only 3 states in the US to top 70 % voter turnout in 2008)
  • 2012 – Maine # 6 in the US, at 69.2 % ( edged out fractionally by Iowa )   

Please note that the above percentages are calculated as the % of Maine’s voting age population who cast a ballot – not just the % of Mainers registered to vote who cast a ballot. This means Maine’s calculated percentage is the larger percent of the higher number (our whole State population). It’s a very high standard and a very remarkable commitment to voting demonstrated for more than 25 years.

LWVME: Thank you!


Herbert Adams teaches history at SMCC and served 8 years in the State House of Representatives. We are grateful to Mr. Adams for his time and expertise. Any errors in reposting portions of his responses are the responsibility of the Board and not Mr. Adams.

(Sources:  Center for the Study of The American Electorate (American University, Washington DC), Maine State Law Library, Maine Secretary of State, and Prof. Herb Adams’ calculations)

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