Politics & Other Mistakes: Reforming the referendum

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In every referendum campaign, there are two sides: people who want change and people who don’t.

That’s more complicated than it appears.

In line with traditional ideological definitions, it would be simple to characterize the forces for change as liberals and the opposition as conservatives. But in today’s screwy political climate, that’s not always the case.

Take, for example, the current referendum debate in the Maine Legislature, which is all about the way referendums are conducted. Perversely enough, right-wingers want to alter the system, while left-wingers want to keep it the way it is.

Both sides have a point.

State law requires anyone seeking a referendum to collect just over 63,000 signatures of registered voters (10 percent of those who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election) within a one-year span. There’s some legal mumbo-jumbo about how the question is phrased, and the initiative can’t amend the constitution. Even if it’s approved by voters, the referendum doesn’t require the Legislature to fund it or prevent legislators from altering it or even repealing it entirely.

In reality, referendums provide the electorate with not much more than a method of expressing popular opinion, so they’re hardly the final word on an issue. The aforementioned checks and balances prevent numbnuts proposals from becoming law – and some sensible ones, as well.

Speaking of numbnuts, Republicans think we need significant changes in the way referendums are conducted. Democrats consider any change to be an abomination.

The GOP has introduced bills to increase the number of required signatures. They also want to prevent future referendums from dealing with fish and wildlife issues. If Republicans had their way, petitioners would have to collect a certain number of signatures from each county. Or each municipality. Paying circulators to collect names would be banned. And anyone who proposed more than one referendum question every decade would be flogged.

These are all excellent ideas – if you hate referendums. Still, it would be simpler to pass a constitutional amendment to do away with popular votes altogether.

Democrats control the Legislature and the governorship, so none of these alleged reforms stands any chance of getting approved. Which is just as well, because making the process all but impossible isn’t in the public interest. But in their solid opposition to any change, Dems are overlooking one small reform that could make referendums more sensible.

Right now, the easiest way to get a question on the ballot, is to send petitioners to large polling places in greater Portland on election days. Advocates also might want to have a few signature gatherers in college towns, not to mention progressive hotbeds in the mid-coast.

The rest of the state is too sparsely settled to bother with, or too filled with folks who tend to be skeptical about change, since nearly all they’ve ever seen has been for the worse. It’s a waste of time trying to convince those yokels to sign.

That brings us to the one reasonable GOP referendum-altering plan: half the qualifying signatures must come from each of the state’s two congressional districts. That would make it a bit more difficult for southern Maine liberals to control what gets on the ballot. And it would mean any initiative that makes it to a vote has some support across a wider spectrum of Maine voters.

It’s not a big change, but it’s big enough to leave both Democrats and Republicans dissatisfied.

Doesn’t get better than that.

No need to petition me. Just email aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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