As with most things, in politics there’s a right way and a wrong way, and — as jokesters often chortle — we usually choose the wrong way first. Though not always.

Here’s a current case study in Maine’s vexed initiative-and-referendum system, adopted back in 1909 by a progressive Republican Legislature, and first used, two years later, to create the June primary election system that replaced party caucuses.

There’s concern that this unusual form of direct democracy — in New England, only Maine and Massachusetts have it — is vulnerable to outside pressure, and it can be. We all thought the attempt to reject the Central Maine Power transmission line to Canada was of indigenous growth, but it turns out it was mostly a stalking horse for NextEra Energy — a huge rival of Hydro-Quebec for New England’s lucrative renewable energy market.

That referendum proposal, though duly certified, was removed from the ballot by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, for the embarrassingly simple reason that it proposed no change in state law, as required, but just ordered the Public Utilities Commission to reverse its approval.

Then there’s the peculiar attempt by the Maine Republican Party to get ranked-choice voting back on the ballot for the third time. To recap, voters approved ranked-choice voting in 2016, along with measures to legalize marijuana, raise the minimum wage, and increase income taxes on wealthy individuals.

The results were decidedly mixed. It took four years to get marijuana shops up and running — regular legislation would have been quicker; the income tax increase was summarily repealed by lawmakers; and the primary purpose of ranked-choice voting, to avoid splits in the race for governor, was found unconstitutional. Yes, the minimum wage increase did work, with the final increment, to $12, taking effect last January.

Ranked-choice voting then had a second test. The Legislature tried to repeal it, amid more gridlock, in 2018, but voters approved a people’s veto by a wide margin, presumably settling the issue. Whatever its flaws, ranked choice seems well-understood, and has been used intelligently by voters.

Nonetheless, Republicans tried to “people’s veto” this year’s extension to presidential elections. Give them credit for persistence: Amidst a pandemic and statewide shutdowns, the GOP turned out the troops and gathered a huge number of signatures, necessarily involving person-to-person contact; better not ask exactly how they did it.

The hasty collections, however, resulted in numerous disqualifications, and, after a brief courtroom back and forth — a judge said petition-gatherers didn’t need to be registered voters, but the Supreme Court confirmed that they did — the ballot attempt failed.

Unlike 2016, when there were five, there are, thankfully, no initiated questions on this presidential-year ballot.

It makes one wonder whether there’s much purpose to these ballot fights, but there certainly can be. One example was the 2017 referendum that made Maine the 36th state to adopt the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion.

Among advocates there was disagreement; former Gov. Paul LePage had been blocking expansion for four years, yet some thought it better to wait until he left office, because Mainers clearly favored expansion.

The advocacy group Maine Equal Justice pushed ahead, got the measure qualified, and a resounding 60% voted yes. True, LePage dragged his feet for another year, but the initiated bill became Job One for the Mills administration when it took office in 2019.

Equally important, Maine’s success inspired ballot measures elsewhere, where legislatures or governors blocked expansion. In three “red states,” Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma, voters have approved Medicaid expansion; South Dakota is likely to vote in 2022.

Now, Maine health care advocates want to go beyond the Affordable Care Act, and put a universal, “Medicare for All” measure on the ballot, since the Legislature has declined to act. The ACA, as the pandemic has dramatized, falls woefully short of national needs, especially by preserving the health-care-for-profit system that so distorts access to care while making it ruinously expensive.

Unlike the state GOP, however, health advocates opted not to circulate petitions during a pandemic, and will wait; a question won’t likely appear before 2022. It could be time well spent.

Demonstrating public support for a wholesale change in the system — something supported, to date, by neither Democratic nor Republican nominees for president — could again be highly influential. No state has done this; Maine would be the first.

Battles over the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College — all institutions that can be, and recently have been, controlled by voting minorities, can lead to despair over whether democracy, as measured by majority voting, can prevail.

Maine has shown that it works. That’s reason to believe we can do it again.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at: [email protected] 

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