Citizen initiatives are one of the most direct ways for Maine residents to influence the political process. Through the ability to place a question on the statewide ballot, residents who are able to bring like-minded Mainers together are given an opportunity to change state policy when the legislative process fails them.

It is important, then, that Mainers be the driving force behind these initiatives, and that the success of the initiatives be based on an issue’s ability to gain a certain critical mass within Maine.

So with state politics increasingly becoming a target of national groups on issues such as hunting and marijuana legalization, it is time to revisit the laws governing citizen initiatives, and make sure they remain a refuge for grassroots efforts.

Under Maine law, petitions seeking to place a citizen initiative on the ballot must be circulated by people who are registered to vote in Maine. However, because of a loophole in the Maine Constitution, the actual work of collecting signatures can be done by anyone. Out-of-state workers can gather signatures, as long as in-state “witnesses” sign an affidavit swearing they were the circulators.

That was the case in the effort to put the bear-baiting ban on last November’s ballot. Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, which led the effort to implement a ban, paid a California firm to gather signatures, along with what the group says were around 200 volunteers.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportman’s Alliance of Maine, which led the opposition to the ban, argues that without that outside help, the group could not have gotten the question on the ballot. That, he says, shows the citizen initiative process is at risk of being hijacked by well-funded outside interests who are “buying our referendum process.”

His first point may or may not be true. After all, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting did get more than 75,000 Mainers to sign their petitions, and ultimately more than 46 percent of the voters in November wanted the ban.

But Trahan is right that the signature-gathering process is open to outside influence in a way that doesn’t honor the spirit of the citizen initiative, and he is right that there is little oversight watching how signature gatherers work in the field, a decided advantage for sophisticated, professional operations.

And he is certainly right that the loophole in the Constitution allows actions likely not intended by the law.

In response, the alliance is pushing a bill that would ban the gathering of signatures by out-of-staters, while also requiring paid signature-gatherers to register with the state and disclose what they are paid and how many signatures they gather. They also would have to wear a badge while working that includes their name, residence and who’s paying them.

Those changes may be too constricting. After all, the state should make sure that it doesn’t compromise the free-speech rights of grassroots efforts and make it more difficult to gather signatures.

But it is a starting point for a debate over how to keep the citizen initiative process in the hands of Maine residents.

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