There has been a lot of hand-wringing about Maine’s citizen initiative process, from both the left and the right. It’s no surprise that legislators would be concerned about the process: Direct democracy undermines their authority and influence. When citizen initiatives pop up on the ballot, it makes it harder for leadership to control the agenda, both inside Augusta and on the campaign trail. Lobbyists and other Augusta insiders also have a vested interest in the regular legislative process, as they can’t work referendums as they wind their way through the Legislature — and statewide campaigns are a lot more expensive than a few well-placed donations.

This session, it would come as no shock if there were a concerted effort to limit the citizen initiative process, and such a proposal might earn widespread bipartisan support if it could address the pet concerns on both sides of the aisle. Republicans often raise the issue of Portland, as Maine’s largest city, having an outsized influence on the process, making it easier for backers of progressive causes to both collect the signatures and get the votes for their ideas. Democrats, meanwhile, often express concern over the outsized influence money can have on these campaigns.

There’s reason to be wary of any legislative attempts to fiddle with the referendum process, however. Last session, some of the most frequent moments of bipartisanship broke out when legislators from both parties got together to rewrite referendums with which they disagreed.

They were often correct in trying to tweak poorly worded referendums. Instead, the issue is how they did it. Rather than proposing their own competing measure before the election, they simply modified the referendums after they passed — then refused to put them out to the people again for a vote. In one case, supporters of a referendum that was repealed by the Legislature gathered the signatures to put it out to a vote again, which is why ranked-choice voting was partially in place this election cycle.

That recent history might lead voters to consider any attempt by the Legislature to change the referendum process as a plot to manipulate the system rather than a legitimate attempt to improve it. The direct democracy we enjoy in Maine exists as another part of the checks and balances in our democratic system, and limiting access to it reduces those checks and balances. Indeed, making it harder to get measures to the ballot would not only make our state less democratic, it’s entirely unnecessary to address the legitimate concerns raised about the system.

Maine voters are smart. They often see right through flawed citizen initiatives. We’ve witnessed that on a whole variety of referendums in recent years: Mainers rejected Shady Shawn’s casino scam, Michael Bloomberg’s gun control measure, the anti-bear baiting referendum and the referendum to expand home care. All of these ballot measures saw huge influxes of money from away, and yet all went down to defeat. So if you’re worried that it’s too easy to buy elections in Maine, that should be more than enough to evidence to convince you otherwise — and if it isn’t, you should give Les Otten a call.

So no, money alone isn’t enough to sway an election in this state; if it were, every progressive referendum would always win and we’d never elect anyone but millionaires. And Portland voters alone aren’t enough to put every liberal idea on the ballot over the top — witness the difference between the results of the referendum on increasing education funding and the results of the question expanding home care. Both were top liberal priorities that saw a lot of spending, but one passed and the other failed.

If you’re worried about big money from away supporting ballot questions, or about whether our big cities have too much of a say, here’s an idea to counter that: Run effective campaigns against the proposals. All too often, the opposition to referendums aren’t only outspent, but also poorly organized and ineffective.

Rather than plotting ways to hamper citizen initiatives and undermine our democracy in the process, politicians in Augusta should trust the people of Maine. We may not always get it right — but then again, neither do the politicians.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.