Maine Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, looks through papers at his desk in the State House in Augusta in this August 2019 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Saying their lawsuit was unlikely to succeed, a federal judge on Tuesday denied a request from a conservative group to block a Maine referendum law as it tries to get a question on the ballot aiming to bar noncitizens from voting in local elections.

The lawsuit led by state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, his political action committee and a national group backing the referendum bid asked a U.S. District Court judge to put a law on hold requiring people who circulate petitions to get questions on the ballot be registered to vote in the towns they circulate in.

The group is now collecting signatures to put their question on a ballot and said it needs to hire out-of-state signature gatherers to overcome the cold winter months. Their complaint, which was filed on Dec. 31, argued the law violated the campaign’s right to free speech.

But Judge John Woodcock shot back in a 46-page ruling to say he was “not yet convinced” that would be the case, saying the plaintiffs had not provided enough evidence to show a burden. He noted Maine has a “strong interest” in validating submitted petitions and the interest outweighed a “less-than-severe burden” state law on the plaintiffs.

“Plaintiffs have provided very few facts for the Court to conclude they are likely to succeed on the merits,” he said.

Woodcock noted the campaign had the ability to gather signatures since August 2019 and that it was “not clear” why the requirements burdened them now. Faulkingham unveiled the effort shortly after that but suspended it that October after saying supporters could not raise the money to collect enough signatures to make the ballot.

The effort restarted recently and is being run by Faulkingham’s political committee, We The People. It has received much of its funding from the conservative Liberty Initiative Fund.

People who are not U.S. citizens cannot vote in federal and state elections under the Maine Constitution and Attorney General Aaron Frey has said they are also barring from voting in local elections under a different part of state law. No Maine municipality has passed a law trying to allow it, although activists in Portland have tried to do so twice.