A petition drive to force a statewide referendum on whether non-citizens should be allowed to vote in local elections has failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, according to state elections officials.

After failing to win legislative support for a constitutional amendment in 2019, a Republican lawmaker from Hancock County had proposed a ballot initiative seeking to prohibit non-citizens from participating in municipal elections. The campaign was inspired by a debate in Portland in 2018 about whether legal non-citizens should be allowed to vote in City Council, school board or other city elections.

But proponents of the ballot initiative fell well short of the number of valid signatures need to trigger a statewide vote this November, despite receiving more than $350,000 from an out-of-state political group, the Liberty Initiative Fund.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said Monday that “An Act to Clarify the Eligibility of Voters” submitted 41,075 valid signatures, which was 21,992 fewer than the 63,067 signatures of registered Maine voters needed to qualify for the ballot. Bellows’ office said that during the petition-certification process, the elections division found that 25,323 signatures were not valid.

Nearly half of those invalidated signatures were not certified by local voter registrars as being from registered voters in those communities, while an additional 8,200-plus signatures were tossed because the petition circulator had not signed a circulator’s affidavit.

The primary proponent of the ballot campaign, Republican Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor, said he was still reviewing Bellows’ decision but will continue “pushing all avenues on this issue.”

“Honestly, I think local elections affect your daily life more than bigger elections do, so I think it’s important that only U.S. citizens should be able to vote,” Faulkingham said Monday afternoon. The Republican had also introduced a constitutional amendment proposal to prohibit non-citizen voting during the 2021 legislative session, but it was rejected by the Democrat-controlled House and Senate earlier this month.

Meagan Sway, policy director at the ACLU of Maine, described the ballot initiative as an effort to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiments.

“There is no room for that kind of animosity here,” Sway said. “Maine has been a leader on voting rights, and our focus should be on continuing to expand access to the ballot box. We hope the Legislature and voters continue to reject xenophobic appeals to restrict voting rights.”

The ballot initiative campaign was largely financed by one individual, Richard Uihlein, a mega-donor from Wisconsin who, along with his wife, was dubbed by The New York Times as “the most powerful conservative couple you’ve never heard of.”

Uihlein contributed $300,000 to the Liberty Initiative Fund – Maine, which worked with We the People PAC and other groups to wage the signature-gathering campaign. Faulkingham is treasurer of the We the People PAC.

The issue of non-citizen voting became a political flashpoint in 2018 when then-Mayor Ethan Strimling of Portland and City Councilor Pious Ali proposed allowing legal non-citizens to cast ballots in city elections. The proposal was eventually shelved after it was clear that supporters lacked the votes on the City Council.

Yet there is also disagreement over whether Portland or any other Maine municipality could allow non-citizens to vote – and, therefore, whether Faulkingham’s efforts to block such a move are even necessary.

Attorney General Aaron Frey testified against Faulkingham’s proposed constitutional amendments in both 2019 and earlier this year, arguing that Maine statutes already explicitly specify that a person “must be a citizen of the United States” to vote in elections in the state.

“This means that municipalities are not currently able to adopt ordinances to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections,” Frey said in written testimony to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

The Maine Municipal Association, the ACLU of Maine and Maine Conservation Voters also opposed the constitutional amendment this year. The measure was rejected by the Democratic-controlled House and Senate earlier this month.

But while the signature-gathering effort may have fallen short, the ballot initiative campaign could still have a broader and more lasting impact on Maine’s referendum process.

Faulkingham, along with the We the People PAC, the Liberty Initiative Fund and a professional petition circulator from Michigan, had filed suit against the Maine secretary of state on Dec. 31 as the deadline approached to file petition signatures.

The groups challenged Maine’s requirements that petition circulators be residents and registered voters in the state, or that Maine residents witness any signatures gathered by out-of-state circulators.

With their window for gathering signatures narrowing, the plaintiffs claimed in their court filings that 135 professional petition circulators from other states were available to help with the final signature-gathering push as long as they didn’t need in-state resident witnesses. Professional petition circulators are often paid by the signature, traveling across the country to work on campaigns.

In a Feb. 16 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock ordered Bellows and her office to suspend enforcement of Maine’s residency requirement for petition circulators. Woodcock wrote that the plaintiffs “are likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional challenge.”

“The court appreciates the strong interest the State has in protecting the direct initiative process,” Woodcock wrote. “At the same time, petition circulation is core political speech at the heart of the First Amendment. On the record before the court, the residency and voter registration requirements act as severe burdens on the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights and are not justified by the state’s interests.”

The ruling came too late for the campaign waged by Faulkingham and his political allies, however. They had until Feb. 26 to submit all petition sheets to Bellows’ office, but first they had to submit them to local election clerks for verification. In an interview Monday, Faulkingham said the group had to turn in whatever they had on hand.

“Essentially, the clock had run out on us,” he said.


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