Capitol Notebook: Video poll-watchers preview battle over guns

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The center of attention at the Woodfords Church polling place in Portland last week was a middle-aged woman with long dark hair. She would not give her name, and she planted herself in a chair maybe three feet from a table where signatures were being collected on various petitions. She held a video camera in her upraised arm.

When she was peppered with questions from curious voters, unhappy at being recorded, she resorted to a mantra, that her group, Project Dirigo and its “Integrity Project” were trying to insure the integrity of the petition process. It became clear that she was mainly interested in videos of those seeking signatures on a petition to expand background checks on gun sales that may be on the ballot next year.

If enough signatures are gathered, Mainers could vote on a measure that would require background checks on sales at gun shows. As it stands now, licensed dealers are required to do background checks, but unlicensed dealers can sell at gun shows without background checks. The proposal would exempt sales between family members.

The group behind the video followed up with an attack on the signature gatherers. They released a statement, according to Steve Mistler in The Portland Press Herald, attacking “rich interests from other states (who) seek, for the second time in as many years, to push an outside agenda with rich-people’s money.” They warned that “people planning a campaign involving big out-of-state money, dirty tricks and disinformation should rightly fear exposure of bad behavior.”

The big guns are blazing a year ahead of any vote. This attack on the gun control petition follows last year’s referendum to ban bear baiting, which was also a fierce fight. That effort failed, despite drawing big, out-of-state money.

The petition drive to put expanded background checks on next year’s ballot is spearheaded by a group called “Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense.” One of the leaders is Judi Richardson, whose daughter, Darien, was murdered in January 2010 in Portland, in a case that remains unsolved.

One of the groups organizing against the petition drive is Gun Owners of Maine, whose website says they want to stop the petition drive before it gets to a vote. The petitioners have until Jan. 22, 2016, to gather the 61,123 signatures necessary for a vote on the backgrounds check measure. The battle is likely to be fierce, even before it gets to the polls.

Last week’s video recording at the polls is likely unprecedented. The challenge to petitions is unusual, since their validity is insured by a process where the signatures, which include addresses, have to be verified by both the town where the voter resides, and then the secretary of state’s office.

Election Day is a celebration of our democracy. It is a time when neighbors convene at polling places, meet candidates and representatives, and vote. By its nature, the voting process is meant to peacefully accommodate differing viewpoints, without attacks on people who disagree. Signing petitions at the polls is an extension of voting, fulfilling the people’s right to petition their government. To have that effort subject to recording by people who are hostile to a ballot proposal violates the process.

The right to initiate laws for the ultimate review of the voters is a crucial check on government. The Legislature has been leery of expanding gun control, and a referendum vote will let the people decide the issue. The simple act of signing a petition merely gets the issue to the voters, who will have the final say. To threaten the petition process in a premature, anonymous fusillade of acrimony is an unhappy political road.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.