The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number One                           Late Winter 2001

 Tough Fight Looms Over Bills to Curb Referendums

by Paul Carrier

At least four bills have been filed in Legislature to tighten up the referendum process,though more may be in the offing. The four would:

Require more signatures in order to schedule referendum.

Require that the signatures come from all16 counties.

Prevent failed referendums from resurfacing for six years.

Force signature collectors to disclose whether are being paid.

AUGUSTA - There isn't a more vocal champion of the referendum process than independent state Rep. John Michael of Auburn, a maverick who has used ballot questions many times in Maine and elsewhere to promote term limits and other pet causes.

So it comes as no surprise that Michael is positively scathing in his criticism of reformers who are trying again to make it harder for activists to get such questions on the ballot. "They are all arrogant elitists who seek to squash the input of the people because they fear the people, and they've got the governor as their barker," Michael said Thursday.

Michael's heated assessment of his opponents may strike some as a bit harsh, but his strong rhetoric shows that a tough fight looms in the Legislature this year over whether the referendum process should be tightened up. Lawmakers rejected such changes in 1999, but supporters hope times have changed.

Already, four bills have been drafted by lawmakers to crack down on the process, and more may be in the offing. For his part, independent Gov. Angus King has not decided whether to propose reforms of his own, but he is convinced the Legislature should rein in referendums.

"I think it's something he will push for" during this legislative session, said King spokesman John Ripley. "He absolutely believes this is something that needs to be done."

Maine is one of only 21 states that allow citizens to pass laws at the ballot box.

The Maine Constitution requires activists to collect signatures equal to 10 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the previous gubernatorial election. Once the signatures are collected and certified, a referendum is held unless the Legislature approves the proposed law as written.

The actual number of required signatures fluctuates, rising after high-turnout elections and dropping after low-turnout years such as the 1998 gubernatorial election.

Thanks to the poor showing that year, when King faced several weak opponents in his successful bid for re-election, the number of signatures needed to place a referendum on the ballot has dropped from more than 51,000 a few years ago to 42,101 today.

Critics say that encourages overuse and abuse of the system. They say the process is inherently flawed because it requires a straight up-or-down vote on potentially complex issues, leaving no room for changes that might improve a proposed law. And they say well-heeled special interests often hijack the referendum process to promote their own narrow agendas rather than the public good.

The process has become increasingly popular since it was launched in Maine in the early 20th century. State records show that there was only one initiated referendum from 1941 through 1950 and none in the 20 years that followed. Voters tackled eight of them from 1971 through 1980, 13 the following decade and a dozen from 1991 through 2000, including three last year alone. Those three, dealing with assisted suicide, forestry and gambling, were defeated.

Political scientists attribute the growing popularity of referendums to public disenchantment with the legislative process and to the increasing wealth and sophistication of special interests that see referendums as a safer bet than lobbying the Legislature.

The reforms proposed so far take several approaches.

One bill would require more signatures ­ 15 percent instead of 10 percent. Another would require that at least some of the signatures come from each of the state's 16 counties, to prevent activists from collecting signatures in only one or two counties. A third bill would prevent defeated referendums from resurfacing for at least six years. And a fourth bill would require paid signature collectors to disclose that they are being paid before voters sign their petitions.

"It's too easy" to force referendums, especially now that the threshold has dropped to 42,101 signatures, said Rep. Arthur Mayo, R-Bath, the sponsor of two of the reform bills. Mayo said activists should have to collect more signatures and prove that they have statewide support before they can schedule a statewide referendum.

"If we're going to put something on the ballot, the citizens of Aroostook County should speak (for it), as well as the people in Cumberland and York counties," Mayo said.

Michael counters that it should be easier ­ not harder ­ to schedule referendums. Instead of increasing the number of signatures, he wants to reduce them, and he points to Massachusetts as his model. That state requires the signatures of only 3 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election.

This article is reprinted from the Portland Press Herald.

Also see article in this issue by Jonathan Carter titled Long Live Democracy.

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