Citizens' referendum process is unfair and should be changed

By Paula G. Sutton | Jan 19, 2017

The state of Maine has what is called “Direct initiative of legislation” included in its constitution. This means that if enough people sign a petition in support of a proposed law, they can bring it to a vote.

You know those people who walk around with clipboards at the polls and other places? Well, they are probably collecting signatures for a direct initiative, more commonly known as a citizens' referendum. If enough qualifying signatures are gathered, absolutely anything can be placed on the ballot, whether it’s constitutional or not. You need look no further than Ranked Choice Voting to find an unconstitutional referendum question that was approved on the November ballot.

The number of signatures needed is currently 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election, so you would need roughly 62,000 signatures in order to qualify. There is no current requirement as to where the signatures may be gathered. As a result, most groups, when collecting signatures, go to heavily populated areas that match their ideology to maximize results.

What this creates is an environment where rural Mainers are left out of the equation and Portland dictates public policy for the rest of the state.

I have introduced legislation with Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling, of New Gloucester, to ensure rural Mainers are no longer being run over by wealthy liberal special interest groups. Our bill requires proportional numbers of signatures to be gathered from each of the two congressional districts. I believe this gives rural Mainers a voice and more accurately takes the temperature of the entire state on a particular issue.

This would solve one problem with our citizens' initiative process, but there are many more. The way this system is currently constructed, it is ripe to be taken advantage of by wealthy out-of-state special interests like former New York City Mayor and uber-liberal Michael Bloomberg, who spent millions of dollars in his failed attempt to squash Mainers' Second Amendment rights with Question 3 on last year’s ballot. Unfortunately, he’s not the first or the last to try this.

It’s too easy for anyone with enough money to pay signature gatherers to get an issue that has not been properly vetted on the ballot. Once it’s on the ballot, it becomes a game of who can spend the most money on signs, TV and radio ads, etc. to influence the outcome. This opens the door to governing through soundbites and editorials. According to the Secretary of State website, more than 70 percent of these citizens' initiatives pass.

In this past election, we had five such questions on the ballot. The topics were legalizing marijuana; a massive tax increase that was disingenuously labeled as a way to provide more education funding to Maine schools; an increase to the minimum wage; Ranked Choice Voting, which is unconstitutional in Maine; and background checks on private gun sales, which failed here, but passed in Nevada, where it was ruled unenforceable and thrown out by the state’s attorney general.

Unless we do something to fix the citizens' referendum process here in Maine, the state will continue to be an easy target. Outside special interest groups will continue to buy legislation if we let them. If you have the money, you can get the signatures, get an issue on the ballot, pay to advertise and get it passed with little opposition, since most Maine people and businesses don’t have the war chests to fight against billionaires like Bloomberg.

They set their sights on the urban areas of Portland and Bangor when it comes to signature collection and marketing and advertisements, since these areas traditionally vote Democratic/progressive. Their voices drown out the rest of the state, which are ignored, since the process has rendered those of us in rural Maine irrelevant.

Look at it this way, what is happening in Maine with the passing of these referenda is the equivalent of having national elections without the Electoral College. The rural, more conservative areas of our state are being ruled by the urban, more progressive voices, which is, in essence, nothing more than mob rule.

I will continue to keep you updated on pending legislation that I will sponsor or support that I hope will ensure that your voices are not drowned out by deep-pocketed liberal organizations.

State Rep. Paula Sutton, Republican of Warren, represents District 95, including Appleton, Hope, part of Union, and Warren, in the state Legislature.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary Beth Thomas | Jan 20, 2017 09:15

Like the Electoral College, any change of Maine law that requires proportional signatures on referendum petitions should be indexed to population as determined by national census.  Representation in the Electoral College is set by the US Census, except for a very slight offset for a few rural states with very small populations that get at least two reps to match the number of Senators each has.  The US Census is only done once every 10 years, so toward the end of each 10 year period, especially during times of more population displacement, the number of Electors allowed each state gets increasingly out-of-whack.  Our next big adjustment to the number of Electors per state will be in 2020, and you can expect the number of Electors in many states to change at that time favoring states with significant population increases and vice-versa.


Regarding Ms. Sutton's comments about "deep-pocketed liberals," it is equally unfair to discount the better educated and economically more successful citizen majorities that live in Maine cities and along the southern coast.  Let's also keep in mind that, due to progressive rules about Maine's Electors, in this last election one of Maine's 4 Electoral votes went to Trump (by only a 10% margin in the 2nd District) even though the vast majority of Maine citizens voted for Clinton.

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