The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number One                           Late Winter 2001

 Long Live Democracy

by Jonathan Carter

The Forest Ecology Network opposes any attempts to undermine the Citizen initiative process through further restrictions. All of the bills and resolutions currently before the legislature - LD59, LD123, LD199, and LD580 - are politically motivated and supported by the paper Corporations who have demonstrated over the last five years their lack of concern for public will by spending over 10 million dollars to thwart positive forestry reform. And yet, if the paper corporations wanted to organize a citizen initiative in support of clearcutting, over-cutting, and herbiciding all of Maine's forests, while I would obviously oppose the initiative, I would steadfastly support their right to do so.

In a democracy it is absolutely critical that citizens have the right to redress issues which the legislature can not deal with. The citizen initiative process is the cornerstone of democracy. In a time when fewer and fewer people are going to the polls, the initiative process stimulates public involvement in the political process. It not only educates the public about important issues, but also engages citizens to focus on important public policy decisions. What could be more important in a democracy?

The current citizen initiative process is in no way flawed. In fact, by looking at other states it could easily be argued that in Maine it is already too restrictive. Colorado, California, Missouri, Montana, South Dakota, Massachusetts, and North Dakota all require a smaller percentage of signatures than Maine to place an initiative on the ballot. In the two
citizen initiated campaigns I have directed, Ban Clearcutting (1996) and the Forest for the Future Campaign (2000), we have always followed a procedure which starts with a bill before the legislature before we go to the initiative process and signature collection. Our signatures have been collected across the state from Kittery to Ft. Kent. All citizens of
Maine, regardless of their place of residence, are equal. County percentage requirements mock this concept.

While one might argue for restricting candidates from polling places on election day, citizen initiatives are not candidates. Signature collectors at the polls are not asking people to vote on anything, but are simply asking people if they want an issue to be potentially put before the voters. People do not have to sign. There is no coercion. Signing is totally voluntary. It is important to remember that if the required signatures are gathered, currently 42,101, the legislature first has the right to pass the initiative or if they choose not to, send it out to referendum.

We do not have a problem in this state with an over abundance of Citizen initiatives. In fact, to my knowledge, there are none scheduled for next year. I do not believe there has been a frivolous initiative on the ballot in the last twenty years. Indeed, if we take a historical perspective there has only been 31 citizen initiated bills in the last 30 years. Most of the ballot questions, 86%, have been placed there by the legislature, not citizens. Angus King is fond of saying, "if it ain't broke, why fix it". Why then Angus are you trying to subvert and meddle with the initiative process? It would be far better for you to support democracy rather than the paper corporation's special interests. Is this too much to ask?

If we want to enhance democracy in Maine, I would suggest two approaches. First, it should be made easier, not harder, to get an issue on the ballot. And second, and perhaps more important, the dominate influence of big corporate and individual money on the outcome of a referendum vote should be eliminated. Referendum campaign finance reform is sorely needed.

All of the anti-referendum bills attack and undermine the democratic process. If the legislature passes any of them, it will be a sad day for the state of Maine which has always prided itself on encouraging public participation in our democracy.

Also see article in this issue by Paul Carrier titled Tough Fight Looms Over Bills to Curb Referendums.

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