Secretary of State Matt Dunlap answers questions during a Dirigo Speaks event at the Bangor Arts Exchange in November 2018. Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

The Maine Secretary of State’s Office made a significant mistake when it gave inaccurate guidance to groups involved with current people’s veto efforts. Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a Democrat, has rightly taken responsibility for this situation — a situation that is somewhat understandable given the complexity of the matter at hand, but nevertheless unacceptable.

Organizers behind several of these separate people’s veto efforts, which in total aim to overturn 12 of the new laws passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, were incorrectly told by Dunlap’s office that if they received enough signatures for their petitions by the mid-September deadline, they would likely have their veto efforts on the ballot next June.

The State Constitution sets ballot-qualifying people’s vetoes for the next statewide election. People’s veto organizers would have needed to submit their signatures by early August in order to get their veto on the ballot this November. Dunlap says he and his staff failed to initially realize that Maine’s new presidential primary system, created this legislative session by a bill submitted on behalf of the Secretary of State’s office, means that the next statewide election after November is actually in March, not June.

“Honest to God, it just never occurred to us,” Dunlap told the BDN about the impact the presidential primaries law is now having on people’s veto efforts, noting that the presidential primary discussion had focused on the mechanics and timing of switching from caucuses to primaries.

“I felt really, really bad for them,” he said about current people’s veto organizers and the realization that they received inaccurate guidance, describing them as now being “caught in a headlock here” as they face the prospect of trying to pass Republican-leaning veto efforts during a primary election that is expected to be dominated by Democratic participation.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said in an interview with the BDN how the inaccurate guidance factored in to his group’s calculus of whether to try to rush and collect signatures to make it on the November ballot, or take the extra time and instead plan on a June election. With the wrong information they received, the League and other groups didn’t have a chance to evaluate the choice between November and March.

“We are not crying conspiracy here,” Conley said of the incorrect guidance, while acknowledging the difficult situation it presents. “I think it totally blindsided everybody.”

Conley emphasized that he was speaking only on behalf of the Christian Civic League, which is just one of several groups working on veto efforts. He said his group still plans to keep collecting signatures, realizes that a March election is likely should it collect enough and hopes there can be some sort of remedy to the unexpected timing issue.

This is an undoubtedly unfair, seemingly unprecedented complication for the organizers. According to the Secretary of State’s office, Maine did not have a people’s veto occur during the state’s brief previous experience with presidential primaries in 1996 and 2000.

There is a very good argument to be made that citizen’s initiatives and people’s vetoes should appear on the ballot at consistent, expected times when more people are likely to participate regardless of party affiliation.

That does not mean, however, that this timing mistake amounts to voter disenfranchisement, as some Maine Republicans have tried to suggest. People may be less likely to participate in this March election, but there is nothing stopping or impeding them from doing so. That is not disenfranchisement.

As an editorial board, we argued in favor of several of the new laws — including “ death with dignity,” vaccination and abortion access laws — that people are working to overturn with these vetoes. We almost surely will argue against some of the vetoes should they make it on the ballot. But those policy disagreements come later. This moment is about ensuring a fair and consistent process.

The important thing now is to move toward a solution to resolve this problem of election timing, which both Dunlap and a Republican legislator called an “unintended consequence” of the new presidential primary law. Another complication is that one of the current veto efforts seeks to overturn this new law.

In the meantime, Rep. Patrick Corey, R-Windham, is working on legislation with the aim of changing the presidential primary law to remove the word “election” and specify that people’s vetoes and citizen’s initiatives won’t be included in those primaries.

Dunlap said his office’s impression is that such a move may require a state constitutional change, but Corey sees it differently.

“We created the problem with statute,” Corey told the BDN. “I think we should be able to fix it with statute.”

Corey seems appropriately focused on the “process concern” here and not the politics.

“What we owe the people of Maine here is a conversation about getting this right — whatever that means,” Dunlap told the BDN.

The right thing for all involved here is to wade through the admittedly complicated procedural and constitutional layers and try to find a way to address this unintended consequence — not only in fairness to the existing people’s veto efforts and the people working on them, but for the integrity of the process moving forward.