The Universal Notebook: Reactionary laws have unintended consequences

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Back in 1993, in response to a ballot-tampering scandal, Maine voters imposed term limits on members of the Legislature. The idea was to unseat longtime Speaker of the House John Martin, D-Eagle Lake.

It didn’t work. Reactionary laws rarely do.

Martin is now a member of the Maine House, having bounced back and forth between the House and the Senate.

The unintended consequences of term limits, however, have been to rob the Legislature of institutional memory, weaken legislative committees, increase the influence of bureaucrats and lobbyists, and make the Legislature more partisan.

We really ought to get rid of term limits, but I doubt we will.

Now, in response to the re-election of Gov. Paul LePage, there is a serious effort to get a citizen referendum on the November 2016 ballot to institute ranked-choice voting. I support that initiative and will vote for ranked-choice voting, but I have a feeling we may not fully understand the unintended consequences.

With ranked-choice voting (or instant run-off voting), voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Ranked-choice voting is meant to ensure that the person who wins an election has the support of the majority of the voters. So if no candidate has a majority of the first-place votes, the second-place votes are counted, and then the third, until one candidate has a majority.

In the wake of LePage’s re-election, the Cutler campaign released the results of exit polls in four cities that purported to show that LePage would also have won a ranked-choice instant runoff, but that Cutler, who only had 8 percent of the first-place votes, would have won the three-way election under so-called approval voting, meaning voters vote for as many candidates as they like without ranking them.

So it is not entirely clear to me that ranked-choice voting could have spared us four more years of pain and suffering under Paul LePage.

I’m also concerned that the complexity of vote counting in a ranked-choice system might confuse some voters. And those who do understand the system might be able to manipulate it with tactical voting.

For instance, in some rare circumstances, ranking a candidate higher can actually cause that candidate to lose. Don’t ask me how, but that’s apparently one of unintended consequences. Still, despite the fact that some cities that tried ranked-choice voting have done away with it, I believe it’s worth giving it a try in Maine.

The most worrisome recent example of reactionary lawmaking was the attempt by some Maine lawmakers this session to amend the Maine Constitution to, in one case, make it more difficult to get citizen initiatives on the ballot and, in the other, to prohibit Mainers from voting on hunting, fishing and wildlife issues. The proposed amendments were both reactions to the contentious bear-baiting referendum last fall.

LD 703, sponsored by nine Republicans and one Democrat, would have, if passed by both the Legislature and Maine voters, amended the Constitution to establish that “every citizen has the personal right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife, subject only to statutes enacted by the Legislature and to rules adopted by the state agency designated to promote wildlife conservation and management and to preserve the future of hunting and fishing.”

In other words, no more referendums on hunting. Proponents fear that the majority of Maine voters may eventually ban bear baiting, and eventually hunting altogether, so they don’t want people to have a say in the matter. Doesn’t sound very democratic, does it? Imagine all the other things someone might not want you to vote on – marriage equality, gun control, marijuana legalization, gambling, death with dignity, you name it.

LD 742, proposed by three Republican senators, would have required that signatures on citizen initiatives equal at least 10 percent of the gubernatorial vote in each of the congressional districts. Currently, citizen initiatives only need 10 percent of the total gubernatorial vote to get on the ballot.

Something like 75 percent of the signatures that got bear baiting on the ballot came from the 1st District; country folks in the 2nd District don’t want us city slickers telling them they can’t shoot bears over doughnuts. If that’s what it’s all about, how about just making referendums district-specific? That way we could ban bear baiting in the civilized part of the state and allow it in the less so.

These twin assaults on liberty fizzled out at the end of the legislative session amid LePage’s veto bender and the Legislature’s attempt to clean up the governor’s messes. But they will be back.

These days, the price of liberty is keeping a close eye on reactionary lawmakers.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.