AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard conflicting testimony Monday about whether proposals to change Maine’s citizen initiative process would discourage fraud by signature gatherers or gut the 100-year-old law intended to empower voters.
Lingering tensions over the coming ballot question on tax reform and last fall’s referendum on gay marriage were readily apparent Monday as the Legislature’s Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony on three referendum-related bills.
Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, has introduced legislation that would allow people to remove their names from a petition if they later feel signature gatherers misled them about the purpose of the proposed ballot initiative.
The bill, LD 1690, also would require registration of firms paid to gather signatures and would better enable challengers of the ballot drive to inspect the signatures for possible fraud.
Berry, who is House majority whip, has accused opponents of a tax restructuring bill of flagrantly misrepresenting the tax law as they gathered the 55,000-plus signatures needed to get the issue on the ballot. Berry said his referendum bill also is needed to counter potential fraud by the increasing number of paid signature gatherers “who are seeking not a good policy but a quick buck.”
“The purpose of this bill, which is coming from someone who has been involved on both sides of the citizen initiative process, is to help Maine citizens trust once again in the integrity” of the referendum process, Berry said.
But critics of the tax restructuring law said it was Berry and several other prominent Democrats who violated the spirit of democracy.
Sen. David Trahan, a Waldoboro Republican and past leader of the group Still Fed Up With Taxes, accused Berry of physically getting in between signature gatherers and potential petition signers.
Trahan said signature gatherers were videotaped, followed and harassed by supporters of the tax reform law, which would lower the income tax rate while broadening the sales tax and raising the meal and lodging tax.
Trahan described the opening words of the bill’s title — “An Act to Prevent Predatory Signature Gathering” — as an affront to the hardworking volunteers who helped get the issue on the ballot.
“LD 1690 is offensive from the beginning to the very last paragraph,” Trahan said. “The offensiveness is only aggravated for those who participated in the signature gathering and were harassed by the sponsor.”
Last year, the Ballot Initiatives Strategy Center in Washington, D.C., gave Maine a grade of D for its system to prevent or detect fraud in the ballot process. Only two out of the 24 states surveyed received anything higher than a D.
Joel Foster, program director for the center, said the emergence of large, for-profit businesses that travel around the nation gathering petition signatures has opened the door for fraud. While Maine may not have serious problems, it needs to strengthen its laws now before fraud becomes widespread, he told lawmakers.
Foster called Berry’s bill “an important step in giving the ballot initiative process … back to the citizens.”
In one documented instance of attempted fraud in the tax reform issue, the deputy town clerk in Greene discovered that all 29 signatures submitted by one gatherer had been falsified.
Sen. John Nutting, a Leeds Democrat who also has introduced a bill to increase the fine for fraudulent signatures, said the case has been passed along to the Attorney General’s Office for possible prosecution.
Critics pointed out that Maine already has laws criminalizing the falsification of petition signatures. Several years ago, a midcoast woman was sentenced to 45 days in jail for falsifying 300 signatures tied to a tribal casino referendum.
Dan Billings, a Waterville-based attorney, said there is nothing in any of the bills to prohibit someone from lying in order to gain signatures. The only solution to that, Billings said, is for the other side to counter with its own public relations campaign.
“I don’t think what is in this bill in any way addresses the problems we are hearing about today,” Billings said.
Bob Emrich, who was one of the leaders of last fall’s successful campaign to repeal Maine’s same-sex marriage law, cautioned lawmakers against villainizing signature gatherers, paid or unpaid.
And Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which has been involved in several tax-related referendums, said he believes the bills aim to make the citizen initiative process more difficult and more costly.
Like other opponents, Bragdon saw politics behind the bills. He accused supporters of attempting “to pull up the drawbridge” on the citizen initiative process because they were displeased with recent referendum efforts.