Looking ahead to November

In a statewide election now just over four months away, Maine voters will cast “yes” or “no” votes on five referendum questions, each of which has potentially significant consequences for the state and its citizens. Those votes should not be driven by political affiliation or ideology, but by thoughtful consideration of as much pertinent information as possible. A list of those referendum questions – and the associated legislation that would be enacted by their approval in November – can be found online at the website maintained by the Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions (maine.gov/sos/cec/elec/citizens/index.html).

Each of the ballot questions is the result of successful citizen initiative efforts that were subsequently considered by the Legislature. Rather than enact any of the proposals, the Legislature opted to pass them along to Maine citizens for their consideration on Nov. 8.

Here, with the title of each ballot question, is a brief summary of each of the proposals.

An Act to Establish Ranked-choice Voting

The proposal, if enacted, would establish a complicated method of casting and tabulating votes — for U.S. senator, U.S. representative, governor, state senator and state representative — in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. The tabulation would proceed in rounds in which a last-place candidate would be defeated and the votes of those who preferred the eliminated candidate or candidates would then be redistributed according to those voters’ second-place choices until a candidate receiving the most votes in the final round would be elected.

The intention of such a voting method is to assure that the elected candidate finally receives a majority of the votes cast. But in Maine’s situation, there is a looming question that hovers over this proposal. According to Attorney General Janet Mills, Maine’s Constitution makes no specific provisions relating to the elections for Congress or the U.S. Senate. The Constitution also provides that winners of elections for governor and Maine House and Senate are determined by “a plurality of all votes returned,” rather then a majority vote. It further directs that the counting be performed by local elections officials in each municipality, never contemplating the centralized, computer-driven counting process that would be required by ranked-choice voting.

In a letter to Senate President Mike Thibodeau in March, Mills wrote that the referendum proposal “does raise significant constitutional concerns, and it may not be possible to implement ranked-choice voting as envisioned by this legislation without amending the Maine Constitution.”

An Act to Legalize Marijuana

This proposal would legalize the possession and use of marijuana for non-medicinal purposes by persons who are at least 21 years of age, would allow state and local regulation of retail sales of marijuana and would allow state regulation of the cultivation, manufacture, testing and distribution of marijuana. The legislation would allow a person to consume marijuana in a private residence or other non-public place, and that the legal prohibitions and limitations on smoking tobacco products in specified areas also apply to smoking marijuana.

It should be noted that, if the measure is approved, Maine’s law then will be in conflict with federal law, under which marijuana remains classified in the most restrictive category of the Controlled Substances Act.

An Act to Raise the Minimum Wage

Approval of this proposal would raise the minimum hourly wage of Maine workers from the current $7.50 to $9 in 2017, and in $1 increments up to $12 by 2020. The measure also would increase the minimum wage for service workers who receive tips from the current hourly rate of $3.75 to $5 in 2017 and in $1 increments up to $12 in 2024.

An Act to Require Background Checks for Gun Sale

The legislation approved under this proposal would require a background check before a firearm sale or transfer between individuals not licensed as firearms dealers. If neither party possesses a federal firearms license, the parties would be required to meet with a licensed firearms dealer who would conduct the background check on the transferee (usually a buyer) and complete the sale or transfer as though selling a firearm from the dealer’s own inventory. Exceptions to the background check requirement would be made for transfers between family members, while the parties are hunting or sport shooting, for emergency self-defense and in certain other circumstances.

An Act to Establish the Fund to Advance Public Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education

This proposal would create the above-named fund to improve the ability of the state to increase its annual share of the total cost of funding public education to 55 percent or the total, as specified by state law, and to increase direct support for student learning rather than administrative costs.

Revenue for the fund would be generated by a 3 percent surcharge on Maine taxable income over $200,000, starting with the tax years beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2017.

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Over the weeks to come, this newspaper will take its own advice, gathering available information and examining each of these referendum proposals in greater detail, before finally offering its recommendation for voter action come November.

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