Just months after Maine voters rejected a ballot initiative to ban the baiting, hounding and trapping of bears, the Humane Society of the United States said it likely would launch another campaign to limit bear hunting through a citizens’ initiative. Frustration and fatigue over this issue among hunters, guides, voters and others is understandable.
But carving hunting and fishing issues out the initiative process, which two bills before lawmakers seek to do, is the wrong approach. If hunting and fishing are so important to warrant a carve-out, such thinking also surely must apply to human civil rights. Yet there have been — and likely will continue to be — far more ballot initiatives asking voters whether basic civil rights should be limited or extended than there have been on bear hunting.
Instead of legislating which issues are too important to be put to a public vote, lawmakers should make the initiative process more rigorous. Increasing the number of signatures needed to get a question on the ballot would be a good place to start.
In November, Maine voters rejected the bear-baiting question with nearly 54 percent of voters opposing the ban. The defeat of Question 1 mirrored voters’ rejection of a similar ballot question 10 years earlier.
Both initiative efforts were spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States. The group is “taking a very serious look” at trying to get a measure to ban hounding and trapping on the 2016 ballot in Maine, its president, Wayne Pacelle, said in February.
We understand why sportsmen are frustrated a national group is persistent in attempting to change Maine’s hunting laws. But taking away the citizen initiative when it comes to hunting and fishing laws, or any other area of law, is wrong.
There are two bills that would do this. One is sponsored by freshman Rep. Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, and would bar initiatives on any wildlife management issue. Management of the state’s wildlife should be based on science, not emotion, she said Monday. Further, votes such as last fall’s on bear hunting are expensive and divisive, pitting northern Maine against southern Maine, Dunphy said. The same could be said about most citizen initiative questions — especially those regarding civil rights.
The other is sponsored by Rep. Steve Wood, R-Greene. It would ban citizen initiatives on hunting and fishing.
There are alternatives addressing the citizens’ initiative process that are much less draconian and worthy of consideration.
On Monday, the same day the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee held hearings on Dunphy’s and Wood’s bills, lawmakers heard about a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, that would require petitioners to gather the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters in each of the state’s 16 counties. This would prevent groups from focusing their signature-gathering efforts on the counties most sympathetic to their cause.
The number of valid signatures currently required to get a citizens initiative on the ballot is 61,123, which is 10 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.
Twenty-four states allow citizen-generated initiatives on the ballot. Signature requirements range from 2 percent of the population in North Dakota to 15 percent of votes cast in the most recent election in Wyoming. The highest actual number of signatures required is in California, where the number of signatures collected must be at least 5 percent of the votes cast in the last election for governor, which adds up to more than 500,000 signatures in the nation’s largest state.
Half the states that allow initiatives have requirements pertaining to the signatures’ geographic distribution. In Massachusetts, for example, no more than a quarter can come from one county. Montana requires signatures from 5 percent of qualified voters in each of the state’s 34 legislative districts.
Maine has 186 representatives and senators elected to make and change laws on behalf of residents. Bypassing the Legislature through citizens’ initiatives should be a rare occurrence. Such initiatives should be kept rare by raising the threshold to qualify for the ballot — not by carving out one narrow area of state law and never subjecting it to a public vote.