A legislative committee took a small step toward improving Maine’s petition process this week. As national groups increasingly fund efforts to get questions on the state’s ballot, requiring more information about such efforts makes sense. The full Legislature should support this measure.
LD 1730 would require companies hired to gather signatures for ballot initiatives to register with the secretary of state and identify someone in charge of the effort.
When lawmakers and voters approved a citizen petition and people’s veto process in 1908, they no doubt envisioned that the process would be rarely used and that it would be used only for issues that residents strongly felt the government had mishandled.
Today, most campaigns pay professional signature gatherers, often with money collected from out-of-state interests. The proliferation of referendum questions — and the appearance of some questions on the ballot year after year — also shows that the process is not reserved only for critical issues or times of government malfeasance.
In the first 80 years that citizen initiatives were allowed on the ballot, there were 25 such questions. In the last decade there have been 38.
Despite the rapid rise in the number of — and spending on — citizen initiative and people’s veto ballot questions, the state remains ill equipped to ensure the process works for the benefit of Maine people.
LD 1730 is a small step in improving the needed oversight. The bill is not about taking away citizens’ rights to petition their government, as critics have charged. It is simply about requiring groups that pay millions of dollars to push for state law changes through the initiative process to be more transparent.
The new requirements in the bill apply only to those entities that pay for signatures. It does not apply to voluntary efforts.
“The purpose of this legislation is to restore integrity to the petition process by creating penalties against companies that are abusing the citizens’ initiative process — not discourage everyday Mainers from getting involved in the process,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Nutting, a Democrat from Leeds.
The committee rejected stronger restrictions, such as allowing people to ask that their name be removed from a petition if they believe they were misled about the consequences of the ballot question.
The committee missed an opportunity to align the requirements for signature gathering for initiatives and candidates. While those collecting signatures for citizen initiatives and people’s vetoes must be Maine residents and registered voters here, those collecting signatures to get a candidate on the ballot don’t have to live or vote here. The standard should be the same in both instances.
These changes are first steps toward addressing the abuse of the petition and citizen’s veto in Maine.