By Maggie Harling
The people have had their say and four of the five citizen initiatives on last November’s ballot passed. These four new laws are going into effect as we speak. Or, are they?
Citizen initiatives were introduced in Maine in the early 1900s as some citizens grew increasingly worried about the influence of wealthy corporations and individuals on the mechanisms of government. Citizen initiatives were seen as a way for people to have a voice when they felt the legislature was not listening to their concerns. In recent years, there has been an average of 5 or 6 referendums per two-year election cycle. Recent initiatives have given Mainers an opportunity to vote on everything from marijuana use to gun issues.
Placing an initiative on the ballot is an involved process. Most significantly, it requires proponents to collect signatures of Maine citizens. The total number of signatures is 10% of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election (just over 61,000 currently). But before collecting signatures, all initiatives must be submitted to the Secretary of State (SOS) where they are reviewed.
- The proposition is drafted and presented to the Secretary of State.
- The SOS, the Attorney General, and the Revisor’s office review the proposal and its language. Sponsors may be offered feedback on their draft and given an opportunity to make changes.
- Then, state officials summarize the proposed law, give it a title, and prepare the official petition.
- The petition is then circulated to obtain the required number of signatures.
- Finally, the signatures on the petition are submitted to local and state election officials to verify and certify the question for the ballot.
Before the question goes to voters, the Maine Legislature has a chance to address the issue by passing the measure into law without changes, sending it directly to voters, or presenting an alternative proposal called a competing measure. If the legislature proposes a competing measure, the measure will be presented on the ballot, and voters will choose either the original proposal, the alternative, or none of the above. To prevail, the question must receive a majority vote.
Once the measure passes, it becomes enacted law without further intervention by the legislature or the governor. Although a new law has the moral force of the popular vote, it is subject to correction, amendment, or outright repeal, just like any other law, as well as to the vagaries of the budget process. If the legislature has the political courage to flout the will of the voters, it is within its power to do so. Some legislators whose districts have voted against the new law may continue to oppose or undermine it, despite the measure having won a statewide majority. This has been the case with each of the four ballot questions passed in November 2016; amendments are being considered on each one.
The Citizen Initiative process isn’t without controversy and efforts are underway in Augusta to reform it. Some legislators see the process as an end-run around their role as our representatives—favoring “direct” as opposed to “representative” democracy. Citizens and legislators alike have raised concerns about poor legal drafting, deceptive labeling, and out-of-state sponsors hiring for-profit signature gatherers. Some are concerned that it is too easy to gather sufficient signatures from a narrow geographic sector of the state and that some issues focus on narrow interests that don’t represent the diversity of Maine voters. And, by bypassing legislative deliberation of the law-making process, the issues don’t get a full examination, leaving voters to parse complex issues based only on campaign messaging.
These issues and the sheer (and growing) number of citizen initiatives have prompted legislators to discuss reform, including:
- Eliminate the potential influence of out-of-state and highly moneyed interests (although, at first look, measures like this may be unconstitutional).
- Tighten up the review process so that incomplete or erroneous clauses cannot be included in the initiative proposal.
- Require a higher threshold of signatures to qualify for the ballot.
- Require geographic distribution of the signatures across Maine by congressional district, county, or state senate district.
Supporters of the initiative process are watching this debate closely and point out that the legislature sometimes proposes and enacts imperfect laws too. And the fact remains that all of these newly initiated laws were discussed in Augusta before becoming initiatives. Legislators took no action, so citizens took matters into their own hands. The Citizen Initiative process is a form of participatory democracy and proponents argue that it’s an important safety valve for citizens to address concerns when the legislature is gridlocked or captured by corporate or partisan interests. If the legislature has work to do in the aftermath, it is no more than the due process.
Efforts to make the initiative process more difficult for proponents may have the perverse effect of putting it further out of reach for ordinary citizens and volunteers, and end up requiring more money and further professionalizing of the process. It may take the citizens out of the Citizen Initiative process.