As the legislature considers potential new restrictions on Mainers’ ability to influence laws through direct democracy, it’s important to recognize that our state already has one of the most restrictive referendum systems in the country. It is far more difficult to gather signatures to place an initiated measure on the ballot in Maine than almost anywhere else that allows referendums.
Of the 21 states that allow statutes to be proposed and voted into law through a referendum process (five more allow only initiated constitutional amendments or veto referendums), only three states have what might be considered higher bars for making the ballot than Maine’s signature requirement of 10% of the number of voters in the last gubernatorial election (currently 61,123 signatures).
Wyoming requires 15% of the vote in the last general election, Utah requires 10% of the vote overall in the last presidential election as well as 10% in 15 of 29 counties and Nevada requires 10% of the general election electorate, gathered equally from each congressional district.
None of these three states, however, have as high of an average voter turnout as Maine, which serves to make the signature number here a little higher.
All the other referendum states have regulations that are the same or less restrictive than Maine’s. Three other states have 10% requirements while fifteen more require signatures equaling between 2% and 8% of an electorate (usually of gubernatorial votes but occasionally any general election and – for Colorado – the vote for Secretary of State).
Massachusetts, the only other New England state with an initiated referendum process, requires signatures equaling just 3% of the last gubernatorial vote.
In short, the proposed legislation to increase Maine’s signature percentages or add geographic requirements would push Maine from being on the more restrictive side in our barriers to direct democracy to the fringe of what’s required anywhere in the country.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the difficulty of the citizens’ initiative process in Maine better than the fact that Governor Paul LePage and the Maine Republican Party, despite all their resources, still failed to collect enough signatures to place their tax measures on the ballot last year.
That’s not to say that the referendum system doesn’t have its drawbacks or can’t be misused. The casino referendum scheduled for a vote in November provides a good example of how out-of-state interests willing to spend $4.2 million can get their issue on the ballot (although financial backing has never been a guarantee of a measure passing when it comes to an actual vote).
But the process also allows regular Mainers to band together to confront important issues that the legislature has failed to address. Successful votes last year on marijuana legalization, raising the minimum wage, fair taxes and education funding and improving our system of democracy all showed that the people are ready and willing to lead on issues where lawmakers have failed.
($4.2 million is an insane amount to spend on signature collection, by the way, and to me reinforces how difficult it is to place a measure on the ballot when you don’t have a dedicated base of grassroots volunteers.)
Restrictions to the initiative process have been proposed before. In 2001, bipartisan bills to restrict direct democracy prompted a left-right coalition of grassroots groups to come together to protect access to the ballot. With Democrats and independents in power in Augusta for a long stretch of years before and after, this meant that mostly conservative measures made it to a vote. It’s only now that the tables have turned and progressives are using the referendum process more often that the proposals to limit the ability of Mainers to bring issues to the ballot have returned.
Regardless of what actions the legislature takes on referendum policy this year, there will be at least one more grassroots measure on the ballot this November: An almost completely volunteer-driven effort has placed a measure to expand health care coverage through Medicaid up for a vote. This is an issue that has been debated endlessly and passed with bi-partisan support in the legislature half a dozen times, but has always fallen before Gov. LePage’s veto. Now, voters will finally have a chance to have their say on a critical issue that could be a life or death choice for thousands of Mainers.
That wouldn’t be possible without a fair and accessible referendum process.