Maine: An Encyclopedia


 If the fire engines are parked outside on a weekday, you can be pretty sure they’re voting inside. . . . Voting in Maine is fun. It is neighborly. It is seeing people, and swapping news, as well as being a citizen, choosing a president.
Bill Caldewll–1977.


Elections at the state level for office holders are regularly scheduled on each even-numbered year. Elections on issues (constitutional amendments, referenda, people’s vetoes, and bond issues) are often held at the same time as candidate elections, and in November of odd-numbered years. Turnout (percent of the voting age population who actually vote) has historically been high.

Prior to 1891 elections were held in a manner that allowed others to know how a citizen voted, often by a show of hands.  This was especially troublesome for wage workers seeking improved pay and working conditions.  Chapter 102 of Maine’s Public Laws of 1891 enacted the “Australian” or “secret ballot” law providing for printed ballots to be marked and cast in a manner protecting the privacy of voter’s choices. This system was introduced in 1856 in Australia, thus the name.

The 1891 law also allowed voters to select all the candidates of a political party by simply placing and “X” opposite the name of that party.  In 1893 the law was amended to arrange the candidates in a column under the name of their political party.  Voters could choose individual candidates from one party or another, OR they could vote for all the candidates of a political party by placing an “X” in a box above the name of that party.  This was known as the “Big Box” ballot format. This arrangement make it easier to voter a “straight party ticket,” which tended to produce legislative majorities of the same party of the successful candidate for governor, usually the Republican.

By the 1970’s, single party dominance gave way to a more competitive political landscape between Democrats and Republicans.  In 1972 a Republican sponsored ballot initiative repealed the “Big Box” and required voters to select each candidate individually.  One result may have been increasingly divided state government, with governors of one party opposed by legislatures controlled by another party.  The first two “independent” governors were elected after the change, with no associated party support in the legislature.

A resident of Maine who is a U.S. citizen and is 18 years of age, registered to vote in the municipality of his or her residence, may vote for all offices and on all ballot issues.

For many years the voting age was 21, but in 1970 a referendum item passed reducing it to 20 for state elections. On April 9, 1971 the Maine legislature ratified an amendment to the U.S.  constitution reducing the voting age to 18 for federal elections.  On November 3, 1971, Maine voters approved an amendment to the Maine constitution lowering the voting age to 18 for state elections as well.

Voting may be done in person on election day, or by absentee ballot before or on election day. Contrary to an earlier requirement, no excuse or reason is necessary to request an absentee ballot.  Early voting is also allowed at town and city offices several weeks before election day.

Each type of elections has its own ballot layout, and communities  have had different ballot styles, from the traditional “X” in the box manually counted variety, to those that require special marking so they may be counted electronically.

Office Age Cit. Res.
Governor 30 15 5
U.S. Sen. 30 9 *
U.S. Rep. 25 7 *
State Sen. 25 5 1*
State Rep. 21 5 1*

*Must be a resident of the state at the time of election. State legislators must live in their districts for at least 3 months prior to the election and remain residents of the district during their terms.


Status: Party NP
Office Term Petition
President 4 ** 6,000
Governor 4 2,000 4,000
U.S. Sen. 4 2,000 4,000
U.S. Rep. 2 1,000 2,000
State Sen 2 100 200
State Rep 2 25 50

**The national political parties inform the Secretary of State of their candidates. NP= non- party (independent) candidates. Petition= number of voter signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

Candidate Elections

Candidates get on the general election ballot either by receiving the nomination of a political party, or, for candidates with no political party, by petition only. A person may be on the ballot for only one office at any election. Campaign finances and placement of signs are governed by state law and regulations. The use of radio, television and Internet resources is important to communicating candidates’ issues and qualifications. These include debates, such as that hosted by Maine Public Broadcasting in 2006, and paid campaign media.

According to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics:

The Maine Clean Election Act (MCEA) established a voluntary program of full public financing of political campaigns for candidates running for Governor, State Senator, and State Representative. Maine voters passed the MCEA as a citizen initiative in 1996. Candidates who choose to participate may accept very limited private contributions at the beginning of their campaigns (seed money contributions). To become eligible, candidates must demonstrate community support through collecting a minimum number of checks or money orders of $5 more made payable to the Maine Clean Election Fund (qualifying contributions). After a candidate begins to receive MCEA funds from the State, he or she cannot accept private contributions, and almost all goods and services received must be paid for with MCEA funds. [See restraints placed on the program by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2011.]

Contrary to popular belief, winners are not decided by majority vote. A plurality (more votes than competing candidates) is sufficient. For example, if three people run for the same office, the winner could be successful with as little as 34 percent of the vote, if the two others each got 33 percent. John McKernan won his first term as governor with 39.9 percent of the vote; Angus King’s share was only 43 percent in his first-term election in 1994; in 2010 Paul LePage garnered 37.6% to win. See governor and presidential election results.

All ballots have a space for the voter to write in the name of a person not listed on the ballot. If this “write-in” receives votes equal to at least twice the minimum number of signatures required on a primary petition for that office, and more votes than any other candidate, he or she wins the election if qualified for the office.

Primary Elections
Only members of political parties may vote in their party’s primary election, in which people are selected to represent their party in the general election. Primaries are held on the second Tuesday of June in even-numbered years.

To get on the primary ballot, candidates must meet constitutional qualifications and file a petition with sufficient signatures at the Secretary of State’s Elections Division. Most primary election candidates have no opponent in the primary. Nevertheless, that candidate must get at least one vote. Otherwise, there is no winner and the party forfeits its opportunity to offer a candidate in the general election.

If a winner of a primary dies, resigns, or is unable to continue as a candidate, appropriate party committees (depending on the office) select a replacement candidate. If a party had no qualified candidate win a primary for a particular office, it could not later nominate one by committee. If a non-party is unable to continue as a candidate, no replacement is permitted, since no organization nominated the candidate.

General Elections
The final selection of office holders occurs at the general election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years. Winners are selected by plurality. Candidates nominated by parties or by non-party petition appear on the ballot. In the special case of presidential and vice-presidential candidates, the national political parties inform the Secretary of State of their candidates.

When initial results are very close or indicate a tie, the ballots are recounted. The candidate running for such a contested office participate in counting the ballots again under the supervision of the Secretary of State. Usually the candidates then agree on the final outcome. In rare instances, dissatisfied candidates appeal to the court system to resolve perceived irregularities.

Issue Elections

Maine allows its voters the opportunity to participate directly in elections to decide certain “ballot questions.” Usually they require a YES or NO vote. Actual participation in these elections is relatively low, especially in “off-years” (odd numbered) when candidate are not also on the ballot. Here are samples of these ballots.

Individuals or a group of people may, by petition, place a new proposed law before the voters for their approval. This “initiative,” if passed, has the same force as if the Legislature had passed it and the governor had signed it.

On the other hand, if enough people oppose a law (except budget items) passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, they may, by petition, ask voters if they want to veto it. If voters reject the law, it has no force. This and certain bonds issues (borrowing for major projects) requiring popular approval, are known as “referenda.” The state constitution may only be amended by a vote of the people.

Additional resources

“Australian Ballot.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Facts Matter. (accessed February 15, 2013)

Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics. “The Maine Clean Election Act.” (accessed December 18, 2012)

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This entry was last modified: January 17, 2017 05:11 PM

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