Two days after the Maine Senate voted 24-11 in favor of passing LD 255, “Resolution, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Require That Signatures on a Direct Initiative of Legislation Come from Each Congressional District”, the Maine House rejected the measure 81-63 on its enactment vote, 15 votes short of the two-thirds threshold required to pass a constitutional amendment.
LD 255, sponsored by Sen. Brad Farrin, seeks to establish that a minimum number of signatures be gathered from citizens in both congressional districts prior to an initiative achieving ballot status. Currently, there is no rule regarding where petition signatures are gathered, which has allowed outside interests to take advantage of Maine’s citizens initiative process by focusing their efforts in southern, urban areas of the state.
For example, in 2016 Mainers voted down Question 3, which sought to impose enhanced background checks on gun sales and transfers in the state. Proponents of this initiative, like many others, used paid petitioners to gather the more than 61,000 signatures then required for a referendum question to make it on the ballot.
In fact, Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense paid a Washington D.C. company, FieldWorks LLC, more than$570,000 just to gather signatures. At the same time that Maine Moms Demand Action was paying petitioners to gather signatures, they received more than $750,000 from a Michael Bloomberg-backed organization, EveryTown for Gun Safety.
FieldWorks LLC—and other companies that are paid to gather signatures—generally pay their petitioners per signature collected. Unfortunately, this model provides little incentive for petitioners to visit communities located in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Instead, petitioners generally focus their efforts in the greater Portland area within the 1st Congressional District where they can gather the largest number of signatures in the shortest amount of time.
Rather than trying to outlaw the pay-per-signature model which is a protected form of speech, LD 255 simply requires that petitioning groups collect signatures in both of Maine’s congressional districts.
As it pertains to the ballot initiative for Question 3, 70 percent of the certified signatures were obtained in the 1st Congressional District. In 2014, a petition that aimed to prohibit the use of dogs, bait, and traps while hunting bears gathered 74 percent of its signatures in the 1st Congressional District. These discrepancies in the amount of signatures gathered between the two congressional districts are not uncommon, but rather a regular occurrence with regard to citizens initiatives.
By neglecting to require that a measure garner signatures from both congressional districts to achieve ballot access, the measures that appear on our ballots do not accurately reflect the opinions of all Mainers. Additionally, this oversight has created an easy pathway for outside interests to advance an initiative and see it put on the ballot, while at the same time deepening the ideological divide between our two congressional districts.
LD 255 would help limit the influence of outside groups in our referendum process and give Mainers in both urban and rural areas a voice in what measures appear on our ballots. Specifically, the bill requires that the number of signatures collected from each congressional district is equivalent to at least 10 percent of the total votes cast for governor within that congressional district in the last gubernatorial election. Thus, LD 255 ensures that both districts get a voice before a petition is approved by the secretary of state.
During the floor debate in the House, Rep. Kent Ackley of Monmouth called LD 255 “a solution in search of a problem” and “nonsense” that restricts the constitutional rights of Maine citizens. Rep. Joel Stetkis of Canaan said in support of the bill, “If we truly believe that we want to support the will of the people, let’s allow the people to speak.”
The bill now moves back to the Senate for its enactment vote in the upper chamber where its expected to be considered on Friday.