There’s nothing wrong with Maine’s referendum process.
The same can’t be said for the idiots trying to change it.
For more than a century, the state Constitution has permitted ordinary citizens to initiate legislation by collecting signatures equal to at least 10 percent of those who cast ballots in the most recent gubernatorial election. That number is currently slightly more than 61,000. Once those names are verified, the question is put to the voters. If a majority approves, the proposal becomes law.
Unless it doesn’t.
The Legislature retains the constitutional power to alter or override referendums, an authority that’s supposed to protect us from such pitfalls as the citizenry’s cluelessness about the aforementioned Constitution, the realities of state budgeting and the possibility that the drafters of some referendum questions were stoned.
Thus, last year’s ballot measure to switch to a ranked-choice voting system for gubernatorial and legislative races will have to be changed because it’s unconstitutional. A 3 percent surcharge on the incomes of rich people was scuttled by Republicans who believed it would damage the state’s economy. And a proposal legalizing recreational marijuana had to be rewritten because parts of it didn’t make sense, and because legislators can’t resist rewriting almost anything.
In short, the system is clunky, but it works. Sorta.
Nevertheless, there are those – mostly members of the GOP – who believe the referendum process is being abused – mostly by Democrats and liberals – and must be reformed to make it “fairer,” by which they mean “more difficult.”
According to Republicans, anyone with lots of money can get a question on the ballot, no matter how stupid or self-serving. “People can come in here and buy our elections,” state Senate Majority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Garrett Mason told Maine Public radio earlier this year. “I hate to say that, but it’s happened way too many times recently.”
Mason has a point. The casino question on this November’s ballot is a good example of a wealthy individual spending big bucks to purchase the exclusive rights to run a gaming operation in York County.
Mason also doesn’t have much of a point. There’s an excellent chance voters will reject this sleazy gambling plot. Even if this odious piece of crap passes, there’s a strong likelihood the Legislature would make alterations that would thwart the intentions of the slick operators behind this scheme.
Mason is also a hypocrite. His GOP has had no qualms in the past about launching petition drives to cut taxes (they botched it and never got enough signatures), repeal a Democratic tax reform plan (successful) and overturn the state’s gay rights law (successful at first, then not so much).
Of late, though, Republicans have been less active in circulating petitions, while progressives have increasingly turned to that process to push measures the Legislature has repeatedly rejected (marijuana legalization, ranked-choice voting, Medicaid expansion). This trend, along with the slimy gambling referendum, has prompted calls for all manner of reforms, most of them ill-considered and ineffective.
Bills in the last legislative session proposed increasing the number of signatures required, mandating that a certain percentage of signers come from every county and banning petitioners from polling places. While those ideas appear to have little chance of passage, a bill to require at least half the qualified names come from each of Maine’s two congressional districts is still alive and will be considered in 2018.
Meanwhile, GOP state Rep. Jeff Pierce of Dresden, a senior member of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, is calling for an investigation into the whole process. In a letter to the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, Pierce wrote, “It seems the original intent of the citizens’ referendum … was to allow everyday citizens, not wealthy special interest groups, to have a voice in public policy independent of the legislature. But that notion seems to be quickly becoming a thing of the past and Maine policy making is now commonly thought of as ‘a cheap date’ for these special interest groups.”
Except, of course, on those occasions when they’re Republican special-interest groups. Then, there’s no problem.
What Pierce and his ilk are actually afraid of is not that the system will be hijacked by shadowy weasels from out of state or liberal activists from right here at home, but that a majority of voters will demonstrate once again that the GOP caucus is out of step with what ordinary citizens want done.
Democracy is a messy process. But trying to prevent it is even dirtier.
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