June 19, 2018
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People’s veto got its start in 1908

By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

Voting must have seemed more important to Mainers (male Mainers, at least) a century ago than it does today. The polls opened at 6 a.m. On the day on which the election for state offices was held — Sept. 14, 1908 — the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad delayed its 6 a.m. train one half-hour to give male passengers time to vote, according to the Bangor Daily News. Local mills opened at 7 a.m., an hour later than usual, so male workers could vote before work. It didn’t say whether female workers had to get to work on time just the same.

This was back in the days when the saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” still meant something. The election of state officers in Maine in September often predicted the results of the national election in November (Maine, like other states, did not vote for president until November). Sure enough, in 1908, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bert Fernald beat out his Democrat, Socialist and Prohibition competitors, and in November, Republican candidate William Howard Taft cleaned up nationally. Mainers had called another one.

But the most important measure on the September ballot that year received scant public attention. This was the proposed state constitutional amendment that would establish the people’s veto and the direct initiative. If passed, Maine residents would be able for the first time to petition to overturn unpopular laws and initiate their own. The Legislature and the governor would have to pay attention to this possibility when making slick deals with the corporate interests to whom they were beholden.

Maine was not the first state to pass such a measure, but it was the first state in the East to do so. The United States was getting more democratic, and Maine was a leader in this movement.

The amendment stirred little controversy. There was little organized opposition. The Referendum League of Maine spearheaded the campaign. Farmers labor leaders, prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionsts, suffragettes and some influential religious leaders were among those who jumped on board.

The measure passed the Legislature almost unanimously. Democratic supporters had worked out a compromise with Republican opponents removing some of the amendment’s teeth. For example, changes to the state constitution could not be initiated by petition, thus protecting the state’s controversial prohibition amendment.

Little was heard from the corporate interests that reportedly opposed the measure.Newspaper debate was desultory and muted. The Bangor Daily Commercial, the voice of Queen City Democrats, called the amendment the single most important measure pushed through by the Legislature that year. The Bangor Daily News, a Republican paper, gave it editorial support on Jan. 26, but raised questions as time went by, finally publishing in its news columns a barrage of criticism on Sept. 12, based on experiences in some Western states.

The Commercial enlisted Robert J. Sprague, a University of Maine economics professor, to give a balanced accounting of the arguments for and against on Sept. 10. If the measure passed, “the people’s will becomes mandatory,” he wrote. Political corruption and partisan politics would decline, while people would become better-informed about the issues of the day. On the negative side, opponents were saying voters did not know their own needs, and they were “unprogressive” and “prejudiced” against corporations and capitalists. Frequent elections would need to be held to handle all the proposals that would result, and the process would become a public nuisance.

The Commercial predicted editorially that the amendment would be “a radical change” for Maine government, but the attitude of voters didn’t reflect this expectation. Only a little more half of those who went to the polls bothered to vote either for or against the measure, according to Rod Farmer in an essay in the Maine Historical Society Quarterly. “Town meetings and voter approval of constitutional amendments had long been part of the state’s direct-democracy tradition,” he wrote in dismissing the notion the amendment was much more than business than usual.

Over the years Mainers have exercised their rights many times on many important issues including shorter working hours for women and children, women’s suffrage, taxes, primary elections, land preservation, term limits for the Legislature, nuclear power and slot machines. Such institutions as the Public Utilities Commission, the income tax, the Bigelow Mountain Preserve, the bottle deposit law and Hollywood Slots owe their existence in some degree to the amendment. And many people came to a better understanding of the issues facing their state through the debates that have ensued.

Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at wer@bangordailynews.net. A list of measures considered under the people’s veto and the direct initiative amendment since passage can be found on the Web site of the Maine State Law and Legislative Library.

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