There is a deep and growing cultural divide between rural Americans and those living in urban centers, with seven in 10 rural residents saying their values differ from those who live in the big city.
Nowhere is that divide more visible than in Maine’s referendum process, which is largely driven by out-of-state organizations gathering signatures around Maine’s largest cities to get their issues on our ballot.
On July 20, a handful of urban Democratic senators, who expressed varying levels of openness, did not support LD 31, a resolution proposing an amendment to the Maine Constitution that would require referendum signatures to come from each of Maine’s congressional districts, effectively blocking Maine people from voting on this important reform.
Their votes could be construed to deny their own constituents a stronger say on what appears on the ballot.
In the last decade, out-of-state organizations have figured out they can exploit Maine’s weak citizen initiative process to promote their agendas. Lacking local support, they hire paid signature-collection companies whose only motive is money. As a result, they have no passion for the issues they petition.
For many paid petitioners, signatures are no more than a commodity. Given that one campaign paid nearly $10 per signature and another paid consultants nearly half a million dollars to qualify their issues for the November 2016 ballot, it should be no surprise they play loose with campaign rules. For them, it is all about volume; the more signatures, the more money they make. That is why they target populated regions in the densely populated south. To see the results of their unscrupulous behavior, we only have to look at the York County casino campaign, currently under investigation by the Maine Ethics Commission.
Money is the driving force behind most referendums. For the five issues on the Maine ballot last year, J.T. Stepleton, a researcher with the National Institute on Money in State Politics and author of the blog Spend Thrift Politics, wrote in June that “non-residents ponied-up $17.3 million, over four times as much as in-state donors.” In addition, donations of less than $100 (an indicator of in-state, grass-roots support) made up only 3 percent of referendum donations from 2003 to 2016, Stepleton wrote.
On July 20, LD 31 was in its final vote in the Maine Senate, having received well over the two-thirds vote necessary in the House and virtually no opposition in the Senate.
Several Democratic senators, including Eloise Vitelli, Shenna Bellows and Geoff Gratwick, had indicated varying levels of openness, with Bellows saying she had strong roots in the 2nd Congressional District and leaning toward support. Gratwick called the proposal reasonable, and Vitelli also had indicated early support.
But they did not in the end support the bill.
Bellows said she was concerned about the bill because she didn’t want to make it harder to get issues on the ballot. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in 2011 rejected such arguments, ruling a similar piece of legislation in Nevada neither violated the First Amendment nor Equal Protection Clause. The court further said it is reasonable to expect that initiatives receive some level of statewide support to appear on a statewide ballot.
For example, organizations behind the 2014 bear referendum collected around 80 percent of their signatures in and around Cumberland County, and recently the background checks initiative collected close to 70 percent of their signatures from the 1st Congressional District.
What LD 31 does is force organizations using the petition process to write an initiative that appeals to a more politically diverse group of Maine voters. Today, the supermajority of initiatives are being pushed by well-funded politically liberal groups, but that knife has two edges. The shoe may be on the other foot when conservative groups figure out they can use the referendum process to push national issues such as right-to-work laws, abortion bans and so on.
Twenty-four states have referendum systems, and half of those have some version of a geographic requirement for an issue to qualify for the ballot. These states, like Maine, have struggled with the same urban versus rural divide.
What upsets rural Mainers and grows the urban/rural political divide is when a referendum disproportionately and negatively impacts rural life, and worse is when urban elected officials know this referendum disparity exists and refuse to fix it. On Aug. 2, these same senators will have a chance to pass this bill and allow voters to make the final decision.
Let’s hope they get it right.
David Trahan is the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.