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.

 

 

VLA Work Session March 2: Absentee Ballots

By Iris Levitis

 

LD 1539 (An Act To Expand the Early Processing of Absentee Ballots)

The VLA Committee met to discuss LD 1539, a measure the League supports and testified for in January. The use of absentee ballots continues to rise, and the time currently allowed for processing is insufficient due to the growing number. This, along with the short amount of time set aside for processing the ballots, puts an undue burden on town clerks and their staffs. Several town clerks, the Secretary of State, and Senator O’Connor (who sponsored the bill) also testified in support.

Bill summary: This bill provides that a municipality may opt to process absentee ballots as early as the 4th day before the election. It also authorizes the Secretary of State to make available high-speed tabulators for absentee ballots and to allow a municipality to bring absentee ballots to a central location for tabulating by the high-speed tabulators as long as security guidelines are properly followed

Legislative Analyst Danielle Fox opened the work session by noting that this bill was discussed in a previous work session on Jan 27th. The measure includes language also found in LD 1484 (the Secretary of State’s agency bill). That bill is currently tabled in the Senate but a second reading in the Senate would allow for removal of duplicative language.

Rep. Luchini suggested that, for now, the Committee let the two bills (1484 and 1539) stand alone. He then made a motion to pass as amended, striking the high-speed tabulator bit. Motion was seconded by Rep. Turner.

Sen. Patrick said, “Clerks have been coming to us to adjust the system for absentee ballots, and I am in support of this.” Sen. Cyrway concurred, “These extra days are needed. Security is not an issue because handling is highly prescribed. This really needs to be done, and it is so critical for them. The tabulator threw a wrench into it, so if we can get rid of that…”

Sen. Collins asked for a summary of the bill as amended, and Analyst Fox replied: Make it an emergency bill that would allow processing of absentee ballots on Friday and Saturday in addition to Monday. Removing central high-speed tabulation.

Result: OTP-A unanimous (Rep. Saucier and Sen. Cyr absent for vote)

Report from the Statehouse: SLG Committee Public Hearing May 27

By Helen Hanlon

Demonstrators crowded the entrance to the State House for a press conference in anticipation of the Public Hearing on HP 956 (A Joint Resolution Calling For a Constitutional Convention Regarding The Status of Corporations As People and the Role Of Money In the Election Process). Dressed in a variety of garb sure to draw attention – especially in the 90 degree heat –their passion was obvious.

With a full afternoon of hearings ahead, we all streamed into the SLG Hearing room. There was an overflow crowd to hear proposals for changes to the selection process of State constitutional officers (Attorney General, Secretary of State and State Treasurer). The full SLG Committee was in attendance, though some needed to leave during the long afternoon for work on other Committees. To my surprise, Senate Chair Whittemore said that each proposal for each office would be heard separately.

LD 1417 (Resolution, Proposing an Amendment  to The Constitution Of Maine  To Change The Selection Process for The Attorney General)

LD1418 (Resolution, Proposing An Amendment To The Constitution Of Maine To Provide For A Lieutenant Governor and Change The Line of Succession For Governor)

LD 1419 (Resolution, Proposing An Amendment To The Constitution Of Maine To Change the Selection Process for The Treasurer of State)

First-term Legislator, Rep. Stetkis, presented each proposal while acknowledging that these were the Governor’s bills. Despite that, he faced very tough grilling, primarily from Reps. Evangelos and Co-Chair Martin with a few more polite jabs from Rep. Babbidge. Rep. Stetkis, took it in good humor, admitting he’d had no part in writing any of these proposals and hadn’t spoken to the Governor about why we needed these changes. This was all in the spirit of getting away from partisan politics, he said. After the guffaws subsided, the very public issues between the Attorney General and the Governor were rehashed and the consolidation of power was mentioned. Hank Fenton, Deputy Counsel to the Governor, spoke on behalf of the Governor, saying that a more efficient, cohesive team would be better for Maine. No one seemed to buy that argument.

Next we moved on to items of interest to the League: HP 804 and SP499

HP 804 (Joint Resolution Making Application To the Congress of The United States Calling a Convention of the States to Propose Amendments to the United States Constitution To Impose fiscal restraints, Limit Federal Power and Impose Term Limits)

A long list of people signed up to testify and there was a 6-1 ratio in favor of the Resolution. Note: We were surprised to find so much well-organized support for these measures. To learn more about the supporters see the links below.[i]

SP 499 (Joint Resolution Making Application To The Congress of The United States Calling A Constitutional Convention To Propose an Amendment to the United States Constitution to Require a Balanced Federal Budget and Further Fiscal Restraints)

Rep. Short and Rep. Crafts introduced the resolution and spoke about the need to fix the Federal Government, saying that we shouldn’t be afraid to do this. Since there was a packed house, the Committee Chair, stated that there would be a strict 3-minute rule for testimony. Despite that, Ken Quinn of Grassroots Citizens for Self Government (whom Rep. Crafts and Rep. Short called an expert on the topic) was given an hour and a half to speak. Mr. Quinn is apparently leading the charge throughout the land for a “meeting of states” – not a constitutional convention. He stated that whoever wrote the bill did it incorrectly and the wording would need to be amended. His extended testimony turned into a lecture on constitutional convention, Federalist Papers, Hamilton, Madison and state vs. federal powers. At one point, Rep. Evangelos interjected that he was hearing from all sorts of “arm-chair constitutional scholars” via email on this issue and so facts were thrown back and forth in a match between government history wonks.

Once Ken Quinn brought his testimony to a close, others could speak (it was after 4:30 by then) and the pro/con testifiers alternated with 5-4 ratio in favor. Those supporting the measure railed against our unfair federal government, and one woman even held up a torn $10 bill stating this was all the money she had left and hadn’t been able to pay this year’s or last year’s taxes. She demanded that the government has to get off her back. Meanwhile, her cell phone kept ringing – adding to the cacophony in the room.

Those in opposition included a district rep from the John Birch Society, an Attorney from Connecticut and the League, along with a citizen from Camden who spoke spontaneously (the “League of Voters got it right!” regarding what happens when cutbacks occur in times of crises). I was asked one question after testifying: Rep. Pickett questioned the statement in our testimony about deficit spending being admissible, in our opinion, in times of crises. “What about our $19 trillion deficit?”

The Attorney from Connecticut, Deborah Stevenson, testified testified because she was asked by friends – that is, she was not being paid. Her testimony was precise, interesting and focused, citing specifics of why we should proceed very cautiously when considering a Constitutional Convention. She noted that states have unlimited powers to rectify situations when we don’t want to deal with the Federal Government: we can tell them to take their $ and leave. She and the windy Ken Quinn agreed to return for a work session. Some members of the gallery were restless and objecting during her presentation (because she’s from away). It was enough of an interruption that Rep. Dore ask them to be polite and quiet. Questions from the Committee were xenophobic in nature – who was she & why did she come up from Connecticut for this?  Yipes, someone from away!

Meanwhile the pack of people there for HP956 were getting hungry because it was after 6pm. I headed home, waving “nite-nite” to Danielle Foxx, Legal Analyst extraordinaire from VLA Committee. At least I’ve made some friends this session – but I miss the bear bills & the good ol’ days of February and March!

 

 

[i] http://www.conventionofstates.com/; https://selfgovern.com/ & http://www.themainewire.com/2015/05/quinn-maine-joins-convention-states-movement/