Reining in out of control ballot initiatives

The Legislature is approaching its mandated April deadline, with a flurry of bills submitted near the end of a session full of huge challenges. LD 31 might be one of the most important and essential bills submitted.

LD 31 is an amendment to the Maine Constitution requiring that signatures on direct initiative of legislation come from each Congressional district — meaning, that signatures for any ballot initiative proposal must be captured more broadly, not just in the urban southern counties as currently is the case.

Since the early 1900s, the start of the Progressive Era, proponents of citizen-sponsored initiatives have sought to overturn the power of the state legislatures with direct and indirect citizen ballot efforts. Maine became the first Eastern state to amend its Constitution, allowing such acts in 1909. Nationally, ballot referendums are successful about 40 percent of the time.

Until 2006, the majority of Maine’s referendums concerned minor Constitution amendments dealing with ballot issues and fine-tuning the initiative process, in retrospect perhaps setting the table for larger goals. In the ensuing dozen years, we have experienced numerous, large-scale initiatives seeking to alter both society and the law. From school funding mandates to racino/casino sponsorships, from bear hunting to gay marriage, Medicaid expansion to minimum wage law, and from income tax surcharges to ranked choice voting and personal marijuana consumption, Mainers have been whip-sawed by referendums. Many have been poorly crafted and inevitably returned to the Legislature for improvements — the same body that wouldn’t pass the proposal in the first place, often for good reasons.

Proponents of successful referendums that need significant rewriting protest that the legislature is overturning “the will of the people.” That claim disregards the need for clearly stated legislation that will hold up when court challenged — a key point in support of a deliberative, representative legislature that represents all citizens.

The “will of the people” also has proven questionable, as town after town has opted not to support the new marijuana law; the recent 3 percent surtax on high-earners was overturned. The ranked choice voting proposal raises both legal and constitutional issues. The minimum wage law is being disassembled by the very people it claimed to help.

Driven by out-of-state activist money — sometimes 9-to-1 in spending — Maine’s ballot initiative process often has been compromised by social experiment proponents using Maine as a convenient and inexpensive test-bed for implementing dramatic changes unsupported by debate and deliberation. Meaningful legislation and laws require trust and honesty. Partisan political efforts lacking the participation or realistic positions of affected citizens will never become settled, or just, law. We have seen this in the crumbling support for Maine’s recent ballot initiatives.

Changing the status quo involves risk. Challengers willing to make positive change are to be congratulated and supported for their vision and efforts. However, changes driven by partisan interests benefiting the few are fraught with peril.

LD 31 is a good start but does not go far enough. Each Maine county, rather than just the two congressional districts, should be represented in any referendum process with the appropriate pro-rated numbers of signatures gathered, so that the “will of the people” is a more nuanced and centered representation of all Mainers. Anything less keeps us on this contentious path of poorly devised referendum laws that favor a few, but distract and divide the population as a whole.

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