As you run around this summer, entertaining visitors from away and going to fairs and concerts, you’re probably going to run into quite a few people holding clipboards and asking for your signature. They’re probably not just politicians trying to get themselves on the ballot: Instead, they’re hardworking volunteers gathering signatures to get something on the ballot. More than likely, they’re trying to undo one of several laws passed this session by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mills.

It’s no simple task getting a piece of legislation up for a people’s veto vote: Activists need to collect at least 63,067 signatures by Sept. 19, the day the challenged laws would go into effect. That’s far more than is needed for candidates to get on the ballot, which helps explain why we don’t see an overproliferation of either people’s vetoes or citizen initiatives. Even in a small state like Maine, they’re expensive and difficult undertakings. It’s far easier to spread a few donations around and get a bill through the Legislature than it is to get something on the ballot.

This summer, activists have been focusing their energy on overturning three bills: L.D. 820, which allows for state taxpayer funding for abortions; L.D. 798, which limits exceptions to immunization requirements; and L.D. 1313, which effectively legalized physician-assisted suicide. Unless you’re intimately involved with these efforts, there’s no way to know how they’re going, but it’s getting to be crunch time – they only have a little more than five weeks to turn in those signatures.

It’s important to keep in mind that signing these petitions doesn’t necessarily signal your support of, or opposition to, the law in question. It just means that you believe the people ought to have a say in it. It simply gives a say in the legislative process to a wider swath of Mainers than just the Legislature and lobbyists in Augusta.

The people’s veto process, like a citizen initiative, is a perfectly legitimate part of our democracy; if anything, it’s one that has been underutilized in recent years. It allows activists who collect the required number of signatures to put a hold on a certain piece of legislation and have a statewide vote on it, adding another layer of checks and balances to our democracy. Fundamentally, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and no politician ought to be opposed to giving the people a say, win or lose.

If you’re a politician who’s discouraging people from signing a petition, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Essentially you’re arguing that we, the people, ought to sit back and trust you to make our decisions for us, but that we can’t possibly be trusted to handle it ourselves. That’s not only patronizing, it doesn’t stand up to the straight-face test in a democracy, since voters are trusted enough to elect legislators in the first place. Moreover, in a state with a part-time Legislature and term limits, many legislators aren’t that much more experienced or knowledgeable than the average voter.

The people’s veto process isn’t an automatic death knell, either; instead, it’s an overtime period for legislation. Few sports fans would argue that, rather than playing overtime, the referees should instead simply award the win to whoever had the biggest lead in the game. If football worked that way, the Patriots’ comeback against the Atlanta Falcons wouldn’t have mattered and we wouldn’t have seen the most exciting Super Bowl ever.

If activists get a people’s veto measure on the ballot, then both sides get more time to make their case. With this additional time in front of a wider audience, special interests don’t have quite as much say and party leadership can’t simply depend on blind loyalty. It allows for real debate about the merits of a particular bill in a way that rarely happens in the State House. That’s why, although one can’t expect a bill’s supporters to be thrilled with a people’s veto, they shouldn’t be afraid of it: They still have every opportunity to win.

Even if the people’s veto wins, proponents can always take another pass at a bill. Sometimes these campaigns revolve around very specific flaws, not the general concept, allowing the opportunity for a second draft. That can lead to a better bill, rather than a piece of partisan legislation rushed through so someone can score political points. People’s vetoes enhance our democracy, rather than subtracting from it, and we should welcome the chance for all citizens to get a say in the legislative process.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


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