The will of voters -- power inherent in the people

By Chris Johnson | Feb 02, 2017

We’re Maine people. We engage in basic democracy with town votes, town meetings, and statewide voter participation well above the national average. We are serious about our votes' counting, and honoring the will of the majority.

Since 1971 Maine people have initiated and voted on 58 ballot questions, and have approved 24 of them. We take seriously our power to collect signatures and send questions to voters to decide directly at the ballot box whether to enact change when the Legislature has failed to do so. Among New England states, only Massachusetts has had comparable numbers of initiatives in the last 10 years.

This is the only statewide direct decision-making initiated by the people. Aside from these decisions, we elect people to represent our collective interests or send us referenda, such as bond questions. In a shamefully disrespectful move, the governor and some legislators are now saying that they want to undo or repeal the clear intent of at least two of the winning ballot questions.

Mainers believe fundamentally in democracy. We deeply respect and appreciate rights reserved to us, the people, by our Constitution to enact law. For me, there is a moral imperative to let those actions of the majority stand until time and different circumstances, or better yet, the will of voters once again at the ballot box, demands change.

The Maine Constitution clearly states that unless a later date is specified in a measure passed by voters, it takes effect and becomes a law 30 days after the governor has made public proclamation of the result of the vote. The governor has no veto power for laws enacted in this way, only a constitutional responsibility to see that these laws, like all others, are faithfully executed. And our Constitution defines no involvement in that enactment by the Legislature once a question goes to voters.

Now LePage and some legislators are trying to make an end run around the people’s decisions on November referendum questions. They want to rewrite, to change the intent of, ballot questions 2 and 4. Frankly, the people initiated Question 2 to take direct action to fund 55 percent of public education because the Legislature has failed to get the job done since that initiative passed more than 12 years ago. How cynical it would be to fail voters once again by undoing Question 2. Question 4 was initiated because the Legislature failed to pass any minimum wage increase for seven years. And still other legislators are considering repeal of Question 5, Ranked Choice Voting.

If we allow the Legislature to simply undo what the people enact, we render the constitutional right of citizens to initiate and enact changes in law meaningless. They are suggesting we voters were confused. They imply we cannot be trusted to make these decisions and they need to fix them. I don’t appreciate my vote's being made meaningless, nor their lack of faith and trust in you and me to make our own decisions.

Our constitutional power to enact laws through passing citizen initiatives is in keeping with a right declared in our Constitution:

“All power is inherent in the people; all free governments are founded in their authority and instituted for their benefit; they have therefore an unalienable and indefeasible right to institute government, and to alter, reform, or totally change the same, when their safety and happiness require it.” [Ed. note: Emphasis is the author's]

I had to look "indefeasible" up. It means "not capable of being annulled or voided or undone." So Maine’s Constitution says the people have a right, which cannot be voided or undone, to alter or reform government.

No matter how strongly a minority of Maine voters disagrees with part or all of such a law, they must live with the majority decision. No matter how strongly our elected officials disagree with part or all of such a law, they have a moral imperative to accept, not void, the people’s right to alter or reform our government.

Now, and always, is the time to hold elected officials accountable for respecting the people’s rights and powers. As a former Republican representative wrote last September, “Woe be it to the elected official who tries to repeal a law enacted by the people!” I agree. Because if we let legislators simply undo them, or governors fail to enforce them, we are allowing our right to power inherent in the people to slip away. It’s our government. Let’s hold it accountable to the people.

Chris Johnson lives in Somerville. He is a former state senator for District 13, which includes Waldoboro.

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