State of Maine: Protect and improve the referendum process

Citizen initiatives are time-consuming and expensive. The process is found in Article IV, Section 18 of the Maine Constitution, labeled “Direct initiative of legislation.” Those words are substantive. A referendum is the only legislation that may be proposed by someone other than a legislator. No one else may bring a bill forward. Even governor’s bills must have a legislative sponsor.

When a measure is proposed, petitions must be circulated and valid signatures from Maine voters gathered. According to the constitution, the “number of signatures shall not be less than 10 percent of the total vote for Governor cast in the last gubernatorial election preceding the filing of such petition.” These days, that amounts to something upwards of 60,000 signatures.

Difficult though it may be to pull off, it is a right jealously guarded by the citizenry. Arguments against the process are legion. They are bought and paid for by out-of-state interests. Signatures are gathered by circulators hired for the purpose and careless about observing the rules. Still, the process is growing more popular than ever.

A citizen initiative used to have sacred status. Term limits? Hate ‘em if you will, but for years after a citizen initiative first instituted them, no legislator would submit, let alone vote for, a bill to abolish or even shorten them. Times have changed.

They may pass at the polls, but citizen initiatives are now uncertain of implementation. Ranked-choice voting or legalization of marijuana may be passed, but their implementation is taking years. Not only is there a battle over implementation, legislators who oppose the prevailing viewpoint simply work to kill the resulting law outright. Who cares if the voters passed it?

Referendums are almost becoming more trouble than they are worth, and it is possible that legislators might like it that way. No more intervention by the citizenry when the legislature fails to act. No more passage of politically problematic bills. No more thwarting the will of the parties.

Aware of the fondness of the public for these initiatives, the legislature is now trying to perfect the process, mostly by making it harder for them to pass. There are bills to require signatures from each county, or from each state senate district, or each congressional district. The three most populous counties in Maine (Cumberland, York, Penobscot) contain almost half the state’s voters. Despite achieving a majority of state votes, a referendum they supported could be defeated by fewer votes in the other 13 counties.

There are bills to disclose whether signature gatherers were paid for their efforts, or to prohibit payment for signatures, bills to require a supreme court opinion on a referendum question, or to exclude wildlife issues from referendums.

The newest referendum that will come before voters is a measure to create a 3.8 percent employment tax, the revenue from which would be dedicated to universal home health care. Aside from the question of whether it is right or fair to simply tax anyone who has money in a disproportionate way, this is one of those proposals that seems bound for trouble.

Referendums are well-suited to yes-or-no questions. Do you want term limits? Stores open on Sundays? Bear hunting? A referendum works. But now we are having referendums with dozens of pages of policy behind them, policy which few voters have read or understood. Passed at the polls, the legislature is then left with the task of implementing measures that could contain contradictory provisions or unintended consequences.

No one wanted to allow minors to obtain marijuana, but the referendum that passed would have allowed it. That was the easy fix in the bill. It only grew more complicated from there. Ranked-choice voting is another matter. Shifting the election calculus makes the political parties nervous. They would rather not, thank you very much, and are fighting tooth and nail in Augusta to keep it from being implemented.

One significant improvement in the initiative process would be a requirement for a public hearing on a bill going to the voters. One such hearing, on the York County casino bill, revealed information that was a wake-up call to voters. That hearing was unique. The legislature has the option of passing a citizen-initiated bill or sending it to the voters without further comment.

If the legislature would hold a hearing, allowing the usual testimony from sponsors, those in favor and those opposed, flaws in the bill or subtleties of the proposed policy could be revealed. The voters would be better prepared to accept or reject the measure.

Voters are feeling seriously outgunned by lobbyists and other moneyed special interests in the state capitol. The referendum process is not going away, but it can and should be improved. A hearing on any bill going to public vote might be the easiest way to do it.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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