The 2016 presidential election, and therefore the future of the United States, could be decided by Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
In the United States’ election system, a candidate must win 270 Electoral College votes in order to become president. These electoral votes are not divided evenly by state; rather, each state’s number of electors is based on how many members of Congress it has. For example, New York elects 27 members to join the House of Representatives and two to join the Senate. Therefore, it gets 29 Electoral College votes. Nevada, meanwhile, has four representatives and two senators, so it gets six Electoral College votes. Whichever candidate wins the most votes in a state wins all of the state’s electors, and the person to reach 270 wins.
But there are two states that do it a bit differently so that a candidate can lose a state but still pick up some Electoral College points. One of those is Maine, which does not use the traditional “winner take all” system the rest of the nation has implemented. In 1972, the state introduced what’s known as the Congressional District method. Instead of the electors being distributed based on the popular vote of the entire state, they’re distributed based on the popular vote of the state’s individual districts. Nebraska also uses this system.
Maine is worth four Electoral College votes, and there are two Congressional districts in the state. Winning the popular vote in a district will earn a candidate one elector. Plus, they get a bonus of two points if they win the statewide popular vote. It’s therefore possible for the Electoral College votes to be split, i.e. both candidates get some of them, whereas in every other state, it’s all or nothing. Let’s say, for example, Hillary Clinton receives the most votes in Maine on a statewide level, but Donald Trump receives the most votes specifically in the 2nd Congressional District. That would mean that instead of Hillary Clinton getting all four of Maine’s electors, she gets three of them and Donald Trump gets one.
It’s this exact, highly-specific scenario that the Donald Trump campaign is betting on. Trump’s pathway to 270 Electoral Votes is so ridiculously narrow that even having just one more point could make all the difference. This is why Donald Trump has been spending time in Maine during the final weeks of the race. He doesn’t have much of a shot of winning the state overall, but he does have a decent chance of winning the second district, which is more conservative than the first. Just last month, Trump held a rally in Bangor, a city located within this key district. And a recent poll of the district showed Clinton and Trump within the margin of error of one another.
If Maine’s electors are split this year, it will be the first time this has ever happened. Proponents of the Congressional District method believe that it incentives those in solidly blue or solidly red states to participate in the election. For example, if you’re a Democrat living in Texas and you only care about the presidential race, you might not be motivated to get out and vote on November 8th since there is essentially no chance Donald Trump doesn’t win there. Likewise, if you’re a Republican living in California, your vote for Donald Trump really does not matter because this is one of the bluest states in the country and Hillary Clinton has virtually a 100 percent chance of victory. But if electors were divided by district rather than by state, it would be possible for Clinton to pick up some points in Texas and Trump to pick up some points in California, therefore making an individual’s vote matter much more and giving those Americans in non-battleground states a greater say in the election’s result.
Nebraska also uses the same system, and its electors were split for the first ever in 2008. Although John McCain won the state’s popular vote, Barack Obama won the popular vote in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. Therefore, he picked up one point, while John McCain picked up the other four. In an election where Obama defeated McCain by 192 Electoral College votes, this point obviously didn’t matter. But the split brought attention to this alternative system that many Americans were not even aware existed.
Part of the reason the Congressional District method isn’t implemented in more states is probably because the party in power always lacks the incentive to introduce it. After all, by definition the system gives the minority party more power. In fact, after the 2008 election, even though Obama won just a single Electoral College vote from Nebraska, Republicans there immediately tried to get rid of the Congressional District method altogether. They introduced a bill attempting to repeal the system and return to winner-take-all like every other state, but this bill died in committee.
So what does a scenario look like where Donald Trump wins thanks to Maine’s 2nd Congressional District? Something like this:
If Trump were to retain all of the states currently leaning red, plus pick up Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, and New Hampshire, he would be at 269 Electoral College votes. Winning Maine’s 2nd Congressional District puts him at 270, and he becomes the next president of the United States. CNN’s election forecast map currently has the district listed as “lean Republican.”