How a ballot question ends up on the ballot must change

Sometimes I like the result of referendums. Sometimes I don’t. But I always believe, whether I like the outcome or not, that it is a terrible way to make law.

This is a more or less bipartisan position. Democratic and Republican leaders, if you ask them, tend to agree on this.

I detailed why the process was so broken in early October, and suggested to you that it will only get worse. We are at the beginning, I said, of a coming referendum arms race.

What was envisioned to be a tool of the Maine people to check and balance the power of the Legislature and ensure the people retained a powerful voice in government has become a tool for special interests to pass very ideological, flawed law.

And that serves no one in this state.

Look at what passed this November. Question 1, whatever you think of the legalization of marijuana, was a deeply flawed revision to law that has left a lot of open questions. The Legislature will need to clean up the problems with it.

Question 2 was perhaps the most flawed ballot question this year. It funds wealthy school districts and gives nothing to many rural communities, it makes our system needlessly complex, and it places an insane upper tax rate on thousands of small businesses. Again, the Legislature will have to deal with it.

Question 4 has endless problems. The minimum wage hike itself will destroy the very concept of an “entry wage,” and will prevent many people from obtaining jobs they otherwise could have had. But beyond that, the destructive nature of extinguishing the tip credit, and of indexing the wage, are going to have to be dealt with by the Legislature.

And of course, Question 5, ranked-choice voting, is unconstitutional, and will have to be dealt with by the courts.

In each of these instances, very complex public policy issues have been boiled down to the most extreme, ideological option. No debate. No markups. No amendments. No dealmaking or collaboration. No compromise. This is not how you make good law.

Worse, these extreme, unvetted ideas are presented to the people of Maine in the form of 30-second soundbites and one-sentence statements that lend themselves to demagoguery and oversimplification. These are, after all, extremely complex proposals, and they deserve to be litigated by deep conversation and debate, not television commercials and hyperbole.

Special interests, usually from out-of-state groups or well funded, ideological organizations in Maine, are using this process today. It is not a tool of the Maine people.

Indeed, referendum questions do not appear on the ballot with the consent of all Maine people. The most common practice is to pay signature gatherers to collect signatures in Portland, Lewiston and maybe Bangor. The rest of the state has no input. When was the last time there was an organized signature-gathering operation that collected a significant number of signatures from rural voters in Piscataquis County?

Petitioners seek voter signatures in Bangor in October for an initiative to allow a casino in York County. Micky Bedell | BDN

Petitioners seek voter signatures in Bangor in October for an initiative to allow a casino in York County. Micky Bedell | BDN

I’ll give you a hint — it doesn’t happen.

There has been a move in recent years to reform how signatures are collected to more fairly apportion the signature-gathering process, and ensure that all of Maine — not just one region, or just its major metropolitan areas — supports a question appearing on the ballot.

Last year, there was a move to require half the signatures for any referendum campaign to come from each congressional district. It was narrowly defeated.

That’s certainly progress, but it would still encourage signature gatherers to go to a narrow list of metropolitan areas and avoid most of the state.

The option that I, and the organization I lead, The Maine Heritage Policy Center, favor is a more comprehensive option that requires a proportional amount of signatures to come from each county in the state of Maine.

Ten percent of the number of voters that voted for governor in the last gubernatorial election — in each county — would thus be required to sign a petition before any question could end up on the ballot.

This would mean that those interested in any initiative actually spend time in Washington, Hancock, Aroostook, Piscataquis, Somerset, Franklin and Oxford counties, and collect at least a few hundred, if not a few thousand, signatures in each.

This would be equitable, it would preserve the referendum process, and most importantly, it would ensure that the Maine people — not special interests — truly support an idea before we were asked to vote on it.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.