Referendum Overload

Posted Nov. 20, 2009, at 5:39 p.m.

Trying to explain what voters were thinking on any given Election Day is a risky business. The results of this month’s Maine ballot is a case in point.

Voters repealed same-sex marriage and affirmed traditional marriage, but failed to sustain that roll-back impulse on the school consolidation law. And though it might seem that fiscal restraint was the mood of the day, voters soundly defeated two proposals to rein in taxes and agreed to borrow $71 million for roads, bridges, ports and ferries. And they agreed by a wide margin to expand the availability of marijuana for medical treatment.

But the most ironic result of the Nov. 3 vote was the defeat of Question 7. Had it been approved, it would have eased the burden on municipal clerks as they work to certify signatures on petitions that put initiatives and veto questions on the referendum ballot. Instead of having just five days to certify that signatories were registered voters in the community, Question 7 would have given the clerks 10 days to complete the work.

“I don’t think people understood it,” Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said.

That’s a fair assessment.

Currently, petitioners must gather signatures of 10 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial election to get a question on the Maine referendum ballot; the threshold is just over 54,000. But in the last decade, professional signature gatherers have become part of the landscape, so that threshold is easier to clear.

The dust has barely settled on the debate about taxes triggered by the TABOR II and the excise tax cut. But the debate is revived because a repeal of last session’s tax restructuring law is headed for the June ballot.

In the past, Ms. Flynn observed, those who strongly believed existing laws need to be changed or who believed they had proposals of great merit would approach the Legislature and make their case. A sympathetic lawmaker would introduce a bill, and it would make its way through the process. If it failed after a couple of attempts, the referendum route would be taken. Now, she said, it seems the referendum is the immediate next step when an idea is thwarted.

If the petition threshold were raised to 20 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial election, nearly 110,000 Maine voters would have to sign to put a question on the ballot. That is not unreasonably high. More than 100,000 signatures put the same-sex marriage repeal on the ballot, and in recent years, three other issues broke or nearly broke that threshold: the bear-baiting ban, the Maine Municipal Association’s initiative to have the state fund 55 percent of K-12 education, and the beverage tax repeal.

Governing by referendum is inefficient, inhibits leadership and unnecessarily divides Maine people. It’s time for a better way.

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