The direct initiative petition process, in which citizens bring political change through the ballot, is the purest form of democracy in the world — except when groups and individuals, especially those with vast amounts of money, prey on naïve, uneducated voters.

Left unregulated, money and unsavory actors are once again threatening the integrity of Maine’s citizen initiative petition process by hiring paid, out-of-state petitioners to collect signatures. One day Maine people are going to lose faith in the referendum system.

Even the most hardened citizens should be shocked to learn just how many paid petitioners worked for these campaigns, and how much they spent to qualify their issues for the ballot.

For instance, in 2015, the campaigns to legalize marijuana hired 226 petitioners workers, and the Bloomberg-backed effort to expand background checks on private gun sales hired 229. The campaign to build a casino in York County really broke the bank — hiring 830 people!

In addition to using paid collectors, three campaigns (the marijuana, K-12 education funding, and firearm sale background check initiatives) colluded with and hired the Washington D.C.-based petition company Fieldworks and paid it big money to circulate all three petitions. Bloomberg’s background-check group paid just less than $600,000 for their signatures.

The Maine secretary of state and the attorney general’s office have a legal dilemma that could throw at least one Maine petition into question.

Last year, the Maine Legislature passed a new law: L.D. 176, “An Act to Amend the Law Governing the Gathering of Signatures for Direct Initiatives and People’s Veto Referenda.” This new law clarified the word “circulator” in the Maine Constitution as it relates to petitioners.

This is what the state Constitution says about who is allowed to circulate petitions for citizen petitions in Maine: Article IV, Part Third, Section 20: “(circulator) means a person who solicits signatures for written petitions, and who must be a resident of this State.”

The law passed last year went further, and defined a circulator as a “Maine voter circulating a petition and soliciting signatures for the petition by presenting the petition to the voter, asking the voter to sign, and personally witnessing the voter signing the petition.” In addition, the new law requires campaigns to identify and disclose anyone who was compensated by campaigns.

Abuse of the constitutional provision was exposed in 2013. The Humane Society of the United States, during the bear referendum, advertised on Craig’s List for out-of-state petitioners. When challenged, they claimed these nonresidents were soliciting signatures using “Maine resident witnesses,” a perceived loophole.

However, no such loophole exists. There is no law or rule that allows Mainers to establish a proxy, non-resident circulator in their place, or to transfer their rights to collect signatures to a non-resident. This imaginary loophole was slammed shut last year when the Legislature passed L.D. 176.

However, last year some shady characters doubled down when they paid to organize out-of-state petitioners for the casino campaign. They were exposed in the Feb. 20 story in this newspaper titled, “Campaigns turning to paid signature gatherers,” which pulled the curtain back on numerous potential violations of the law.

This is what Glen Witham, a paid circulator with the casino campaign, said: “There were about 30 people in there waiting to get their signatures notarized, and every one of them was from out of state.”

Witham elaborated further in the article that while on the casino campaign he saw people who were supposed to be witnessing signatures for out-of-state circulators out gathering their own signatures instead.

The next question is: If non-residents circulated petitions, which Maine resident was going to swear under oath they circulated the petition, and which notaries were going to look the other way?

What is not clear from the article is how widespread the use of out-of-state paid collectors was with the other campaigns. The newspaper should follow up their expose and determine whether Fieldworks or other campaigns used “witnesses” with non-resident petitioners.

If others are exposed, then state officials must investigate and determine whether these non-residents violated the Constitution when they petitioned, and determine whether the signatures are valid.

Petitioners are regulated almost entirely on an honor system, and that is the problem. For instance, the people who notarize petitions are agents of the secretary of state, whose responsibility is to oversee elections.

But in referendum campaigns, petition companies are legally allowed to hire their own friendly notaries. This is the equivalent of hiring convicts to guard a bank vault.

It is time for real referendum reform with enforcement capabilities. I have asked Rep. Larry Luchini, D-Ellsworth, House chairman of the Legal and Veteran’s Affairs Committee, to introduce a bill as soon as possible to strengthen the legislation passed last year, and look at some form of enforcement so we can insure the integrity of our referendum system.

If not, expect the problems to worsen.

David Trahan is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Augusta. Email at [email protected].

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