In an Oct. 29 editorial, the Bangor Daily News voiced concern about the apparent ease of placing referenda before the Legislature or to the voters directly through the people’s veto process. It’s simple to understand the reasoning, as 2009 has been a record year for the initiative process with five submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office in January and two more people’s veto petitions submitted during the summer. Of these, five appeared on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Concerns have been raised by the BDN and others about the use of paid signature gatherers and the occasional allegations of abuses that follow. The concerns are real, and at least some of the stories are true. To the Legislature’s enduring credit, many of those occurrences have been addressed as they emerge and in a manner that has left the core of the petition process intact and the rights of the public to petition their government unfettered. Those who would use the process illegally have been uniformly and firmly prosecuted.
Less adaptable to close scrutiny is the charge that referendum questions are quick scams that dupe the public and frustrate able legislators from their core job of protecting and cultivating the public trust. Quoting my old friend and colleague, former state Rep. Jeremy Fischer, the BDN agrees that “voters are presented with seductive ideas … but they are not presented with honest choices.”
Such referenda, I would hasten to point out, are usually defeated.
This point is the most critical. Referendum campaigns can be maddening — robo-calls, door-to-door canvassers, mail, the barrage of TV ads — but voters always have the final say. What’s wrong with that?
While the premise that making public policy is complex is true, “making policy” shouldn’t trump the “public” part of the process. “Reforming” the process until it is out of the reach of the public will certainly make life easier for the Legislature. But reforms should be carefully crafted; annoyance at another referendum fight now really shouldn’t translate into shearing ourselves of a valuable tool to petition for redress of our grievances later.
As a first- and second-term member of Maine’s House of Representatives, I didn’t think a whole lot of the citizen initiative and people’s veto processes and was an enthusiastic co-sponsor on many bills to restrain the process. I had come quickly to appreciate the grave responsibility each legislator had invested with the oath of office to consider policy proposals, weigh them carefully, discuss them, make compromises to protect different segments of the public, debate different positions and then, with great care, cast our votes.
Fischer is right that such consideration is unavailable during debates on citizen initiatives, but if voters approve what the Legislature will not, the Legislature is later free to carefully sculpt the new policy to fit into the overall statutory landscape. The most recent example of that includes the hundreds of millions of dollars in new development across Main Street in Bangor from the offices of the BDN. Hollywood Slots in Bangor is the result of an approved initiative, but the current authorizing law bears little resemblance to the original initiative.
As a guardian of the free and fair conduct of Maine’s elections, I have had the unique opportunity to watch the process of the citizen’s initiative unfold many times. I have learned it is not a simple process or for the faint of heart. It is not easy, and it requires dogged commitment and an almost superhuman will to maintain organization, energy and focus. I believe Maine voters are fortunate to have these processes at their disposal.
Maine voters are smart. They read material. They ask questions. They argue at lunch counters and water coolers. They put up signs and talk to their friends and trusted colleagues. And most of all, they think about it before they vote.
Watching polling numbers roll back and forth before Election Day confirms this, along with the reality that relatively few referenda pass at the polls. The reasons for that are highly individualized, but suffice to say that Maine voters will happily consider any idea, but, however seductive a campaign, they will only vote for an honest choice.
Besides, as aggravating as these campaigns can be, the result is certainly a vastly more engaged electorate. This past November — an “off-year” election — saw more than 55 percent of eligible voters get out and cast their votes. That can’t be a bad thing. The most important part of the initiative and people’s veto processes is the Maine voter. If we can’t trust that, no promised fail-safe amendment to election law can save us.
Matt Dunlap is Maine’s secretary of state.