Citizen Initiatives…Be Careful What You Wish For

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?MaineStateSeal

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.

  1. The proposition is drafted and presented to the Secretary of State.
  2. 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.
  3. Then, state officials summarize the proposed law, give it a title, and prepare the official petition.
  4. The petition is then circulated to obtain the required number of signatures.
  5. 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:

  1. Eliminate the potential influence of out-of-state and highly moneyed interests (although, at first look, measures like this may be unconstitutional).
  2. Tighten up the review process so that incomplete or erroneous clauses cannot be included in the initiative proposal.
  3. Require a higher threshold of signatures to qualify for the ballot.
  4. 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.




2016 Ballot Questions

On Election Day, Mainers will decide on several important (and possibly controversial) issues. There are five citizens initiatives and one bond issue on the ballot. This presentation provides the descriptions, background and yes/no arguments for all six of these questions.

Voting is your opportunity to have a say in planning for Maine’s future. Don’t miss your chance – be sure to vote.


Easy-to-Read Voter Guide for the 2016 election

We’re so excited!  It’s here!voterguide2016

The League of Women Voters of Maine Education Fund has released its ninth Easy-to-Read Voter Guide for the 2016 election.

This year’s guide covers the presidential race, both federal races for the U.S. House of Representatives, Districts 1 and 2, five statewide citizen initiative questions, and one statewide bond issue that will be decided by voters on November 8th.

As always, the guide is nonpartisan and does not endorse any candidate or party or promote any platform or position on the ballot questions.

As we have for the past eight years, we will distribute free paper copies of the guide to citizens throughout Maine. This year, we printed and are distributing 50,000 copies to libraries, adult education centers, social service agencies, colleges, and high schools across the State.

A PDF of the guide is also available to download from the LWVME website, Information about candidates and ballot questions will also be online at

Paper copies can be requested by emailing or calling 207-622-0256 Ext 2quote-about-voter-guide

Please share with family and friends so we’re all ready to vote on Election Day!

Jill Ward, President
League of Women Voters of Maine Education Fund

VLA Committee January 15

By Stephanie Philbrick

Committee confirmation of William Lee on the Ethics Commission. Mr. Lee has a very impressive legal resume and, as he spoke extemporaneously, it became clear that he is also a college professor. At times, his presentation before the committee sounded more like a class lecture than an introduction. The mood of the Committee was light, though, and Sen. Cyrway cracked himself up by asking how the VLA was doing on ethics issues. In a more serious way, Rep. Golden asked what Maine was doing right. Mr. Lee, not quite answering the question, cited Maine’s rural nature, integrity, trust and professionalism as characteristics that make our state great. It would have been nice to hear about the processes and regulations that work well, perhaps with his opinions on citizens’ initiatives, Clean Elections, access to voting and citizen involvement opportunities. Those questions didn’t come up, and so we don’t really know how he would have answered. Instead we got a bit of cheerleading and quite a bit about why the American system is so much better than those in Cuba and the former U.S.S.R. In the end, the Committee unanimously voted to recommend Mr. Lee for confirmation. He was unanimously confirmed by the full Senate on January 19th.

LD 742 RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine to Require That 5 Percent of Signatures on a Direct Initiative of Legislation Come from Each County

Carried over from last session, LD 742 is a vestige (hopefully the last) of the controversial bear baiting referendum. Extensively reworked, the amended bill was somewhat confusing, and it took some discussion for everyone to be clear on just what was being discussed. Despite the title, with amendments the result is this:

petitions for citizen initiatives must submit signatures from each congressional district representing 10% of the turnout that voted in the previous gubernatorial election in that congressional district (Maine has two).

Senator Cyrway felt very strongly that this was a better system, saying, “It’s good. We’ve worked on it because in other states one section of the state can control the entire election just because the population concentration is in one area. This allows different regions to weigh in despite population.” There was some discussion about constitutionality, but it was noted that a similar process was tested in the Nevada courts and deemed okay because of the one-man one-vote theory.

Midway through the discussion, Rep. Longstaff said that he was unwilling to vote yes because he doesn’t support dividing Maine into two for election purposes and because, in any given election, a local issue can sway the turnout and affect the entire state. Immediately, a party caucus was called and the work session was halted. Democrats left while Republicans milled about the room. It’s not clear why a caucus was called because the discussion continued pretty much as before with Sen. Cyrway reiterating why the bill was good and Rep. Turner agreeing, “Will level the playing field. Gives small communities a voice on petitions.”

Result: divided report.