There’s been a lot written lately about the growth of citizen-initiated referendums. But not enough has been said about how to prevent the problems they present and improve what’s worthy in the process.

What’s wrong with referendums? More and more, they’re becoming a device for single-interest groups, on both the right and the left, to fast-track their legislative agendas by getting the public to vote a question into law, thus circumventing the normal vetting and prioritizing that take place in the Legislature.

We’ve seen popular referendums decided in anger and fear, like Brexit and anti-immigration laws in Europe. Others have tackled real problems but presented dubious solutions, like rent control. In these cases, majorities have voted measures into law discredited by experts and sometimes previously rejected by elected representatives.

The poster child for referendum abuse in Maine is Las Vegas entrepreneur Shawn Scott. He drove the referendum that eventually allowed slots at a Bangor racetrack he owned, which he promptly sold for a $51 million profit.

Like any good gambler, Mr. Scott knows a sucker when he sees one. He was back in Maine this year with a new referendum proposal giving him exclusive rights to establish a racino in York County. Those plans failed because invalid signatures were found on his petitions. But he’s already planning for next year.

Less brash is this year’s referendum Question 2 to raise top-end taxes to increase teacher pay. Yes, the wealthy should pay more to fund social needs, but who decides why education is the beneficiary, as opposed to, say, mental health or drug addiction? Basically, because a well-organized, deep-pocketed union got their question on the ballot first.

Referendums today are rarely “people’s campaigns” in the way most of us understand that term. Petition management companies — available to anyone with the money to pay them — typically drive the petition-circulating process.

One of these firms, National Petition Management, is so sure it can secure the signatures needed to get your question on the ballot that it promises “if your percentage of valid signatures falls under our contracted rate, we’ll make up the difference at our own expense.” These companies helped place several referendums on this November’s ballot.

The idea of paying someone based on the signatures they collect favors big money in politics and doesn’t exactly instill confidence that the process is being conducted in a fair and impartial fashion.

But the whole point, of course, is to get a question on the ballot, where anything can happen. Here, legislation with potentially complex and far-reaching consequences gets presented to voters in a roughly 25-word query packaged in sound bites and verbal triggers.

Anyone with the desire to make a truly informed and responsible decision about a referendum must read the proposed law, something a responsible elected official would do as part of his or her duties. Yet expecting the average voter to slog through a bill like the one to legalize marijuana — 30 pages long — is like counting on an iTunes user to read their service agreement before upgrading.

The point is not to banish popular referendums. Rather, it’s to identify those that are poorly conceived or that serve as a tool for special interests to skirt normal legislative channels.

How can we do this? One way is to bring integrity to the process of collecting petition signatures. Amazingly, courts have looked askance on limiting the practice of paying consultants to hustle signatures. We need creative legal strategies to address this.

Another idea, championed by Massachusetts, requires that petition signatures represent a cross-section of voters from all areas of a state. We should also explore limits on how soon a referendum may be re-introduced if it has once been defeated.

Especially important is providing voters with unbiased and readily accessible data about a referendum question. The state of Oregon, for example, has pioneered the Citizens’ Initiative Review Commission, which calls for a randomly selected, diverse group of 24 Oregon citizens to spend five days meeting with experts, sponsors and opponents regarding each referendum question on the ballot.

The group then drafts a Citizens’ Statement on their findings, including key facts about each measure and arguments for and against its passage, which is published in a voters’ pamphlet distributed at every polling place in the state.

Ultimately, mistrust of the political system is driving the rise of referendums. We need leaders motivated by consensus, not ideology, division or filibuster. Maybe that’s too much to expect. But if we can create these changes locally and move forward from there, we might experience the kind of renewal that is grass-roots democracy at its best.

Tim Wallace is a resident of Portland.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: