AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine voters are poised to decide ballot questions with historic consequences in 2016, including legalizing marijuana, raising the state’s minimum wage and mandating background checks on private gun sales.
But with a presidential race on tap, those six potential citizen initiatives may not be at the top of voters’ minds, and their impact on other big races, including for U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s seat in the 2nd District and control of the Maine Legislature, might not be readily apparent.
Only an effort to establish ranked-choice voting has qualified for the ballot. The others, also including campaigns to increase K-12 education funding and a Las Vegas developer’s controversial push for a York County casino, have submitted signatures to qualify.
However, ballot question campaigning won’t be as simple as convincing Mainers to vote yes or no on each question. Business groups may push legislators to mitigate a progressive minimum wage increase, there may be a rift among marijuana advocates and the casino campaign is at risk of not making the ballot.
Here are three things to watch on Maine’s referendum front.
Because it’s a presidential year, certain questions may benefit from increased turnout instead of driving voters to the polls.
While there are lots of ballot questions this year, there’s nothing quite as divisive as the unsuccessful 2014 campaign to ban major methods of bear hunting in Maine.
That question was credited with boosting Gov. Paul LePage and Poliquin — two Republicans running reasonably tight races — by increasing turnout in rural, conservative areas that opposed the ban.
That year, Maine saw the nation’s best voter turnout at 59 percent, which has led to Republican claims they can compete well here in high-turnout elections.
However, turnout was at 69 percent in 2012, when Democrats took both legislative chambers from Republicans and President Barack Obama carried the state. Democrats like their chances to bounce back in 2016 because of that traditional presidential year turnout bump, and it’s why you’ll see liberal campaigns on the ballot.
University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer said opposition to the background check referendum could attract Republican voters while support for the marijuana question could draw out Democrats “a little bit.”
However, he didn’t see any questions that would benefit one party over the other on balance, saying, “this is a presidential year,” which will motivate voters.
Business groups may ask the Legislature to put a smaller minimum wage increase before voters.
The Maine People’s Alliance’s proposed ballot question would raise Maine’s minimum wage from $7.50 per hour to $12 by 2020 and index it thereafter, but that’s too much for business groups that are looking for a way to mitigate the proposed increases.
The Maine State Chamber of Commerce is “part of a group of business associations that are taking a look at what our options are” on the issue, according to Peter Gore, a chamber lobbyist who said the increase would be “particularly difficult for small businesses in this state to swallow.”
Once a citizen initiative’s signatures are certified by Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, the Legislature can either enact the proposed law itself — which is rare — or send it to the ballot. But it also can put forward a “competing measure” on the same subject, putting both questions to voters.
Gore said one of the group’s option could be to press the Legislature to put a smaller increase on the ballot in that way, but he said nothing has been decided yet.
But a legislative solution has proven difficult to find: Democrats passed a smaller hike in 2013, but it was vetoed by LePage, and last year, Senate Republicans passed a bill to raise the minimum wage in exchange for loosening some of Maine’s child labor laws, but that alienated Democrats and didn’t go forward.
There could be trouble with signatures for the casino campaign and dissention among marijuana legalization advocates.
Different sets of obstacles loom for the casino and marijuana campaigns.
There are early signs the casino question may not make the ballot, but it’s hard to tell with the campaign’s opaque nature. It hasn’t answered media questions since kicking off a last-minute drive for the more than 61,000 qualifying signatures in December.
The question would give Las Vegas developer Shawn Scott — whose sister funded the effort through January — the only chance at the casino license. The campaign drew attention for its aggressive signature drive, where gatherers were reportedly paid up to $10 per signature.
However, more than half the campaign’s signatures were invalidated by clerks in Bangor, and clerks in Maine’s three other biggest cities — Portland, Lewiston and South Portland — said they saw large volumes of bad signatures.
Many could be tossed out by Dunlap’s office, which said the campaign reported handing in 68,000 signatures Monday. It’s unclear whether those are all the signatures collected or just the ones that passed muster with municipal election officials. The campaign won’t say.
When the marijuana campaign submitted signatures in Augusta on Monday, they were met with a protest from fellow advocates who were upset that the grass-roots effort they once supported merged in October with one put forward by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group.
Maine has been kind to marijuana at the ballot box — 61 percent supported legalizing medical marijuana in 1999 and 58 percent approved a state-licensed distribution system in 2009 — but legalization should be harder, and dissention in the ranks isn’t what the campaign needs.