People pick up their ballots at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Credit: Gabor Degre

There’s at least one persistent, unfortunate accounting discrepancy in Augusta and around the state: people just can’t seem to agree on how many Maines there are.

It’s a familiar debate that nominally pits rural Maine against less rural Maine, northern Maine against southern Maine — with a shifting understanding of where the dividing line actually falls.

The disagreement about whether there are “two Maines” is in itself a reflection of the very real frustrations and opportunities we face in different parts of the state. But it’s also divisive and unproductive, and it’s a conversation that policymakers should move away from.

Paradoxically, legislators have a chance to help ease this “two Maines” tension by recognizing it in the context of the debate about referendum reform.

The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee heard testimony Monday on two proposals that would add geographical requirements for citizen’s initiative signature gathering. Both would require amending the state Constitution. The general idea here — to make the referendum process more inclusive for all Mainers, and yes, raise the bar somewhat in terms of effort required to collect the signatures — is a good one, even if it has tinges of the tired “two Maines” argument. Ensuring that more Maine people from communities across the state have an initial say in whether a referendum makes it on the ballot can actually remove some of that lingering resentment.

One of the resolutions discussed at the March 4 hearing, from Sen. Brad Farrin of Norridgewock, would require an initiative to get signatures from 10 percent of gubernatorial voters in each of Maine’s two congressional districts, not just statewide. The other, from Rep. Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, would install the same requirement but for state Senate districts.

“There is real concern that the current process does not include rural Maine and only supports the ‘two Maine’ dynamic that exists between rural and urban areas,” Stewart said in his written testimony.

Of the two proposals, Farrin’s strikes a better balance between including people from more parts of the state and maintaining an accessible process for Mainers to initiate legislation. While the concept of requiring signatures from every Senate district has merit, it could possibly set too high a barrier for collecting signatures, and as Maine’s Director of Elections Melissa Packard pointed out in her neutral testimony, it could potentially set the stage for a court challenge on First Amendment grounds. The goal here should be to make the process more inclusive, not make it inaccessible.

Of the 24 states with a citizen’s initiative process, half have some sort of geographic distribution requirement. Courts have upheld the approach of requiring signatures from each of a state’s congressional district, as Nevada does. Maine should join them.

The pushback to this idea — much like the arguments in support — are nothing new. After all, proposals like Farrin’s have come before the Legislature before.

“Maine is one state, and we should treat it as one state,” John Kosinski of the Maine Education Association said in his testimony against both Farrin and Stewart’s legislation. Kosinski is not wrong in his call for a more unified Maine, but we don’t get there by dismissing frustrations raised from other parts of the state.

Farrin’s proposal can help alleviate some of that “two Maines” resentment by ensuring that the more rural 2nd Congressional District has more of a say early on in the referendum process. If enough voters in both congressional districts sign a petition and a referendum question is added to the ballot, the question would still ultimately be decided by a statewide vote, as it should be. This won’t fundamentally change how we vote on referenda, but it can improve the front end of the process.

Are communities and regions of Maine distinctly different from one another and have some distinctly different priorities? Of course. However, overplaying those differences or pretending that they don’t exist are both detrimental to moving Maine forward.

Requiring that a threshold number of referendum signatures come from both of Maine’s congressional districts is one way to help get past this old conversation. It’s an approach that’s been tested in other states and in federal court, and it makes sense for all of Maine.