House Approves Bill To Change Signature-Gathering Requirements For Referendums

Apr 11, 2018

The Maine House has given approval to a measure that would ask the voters to change provisions of the the state constitution governing the collection of signatures to initiate referendums. Supporters want to raise the bar for getting questions on the statewide ballot.

The current language in the constitution is over a century old. It requires the valid signatures of 10 percent of the voters in the previous election to initiate legislation that lawmakers must either pass as proposed or send to the voters.

In recent years, critics have argued that signatures can be more easily collected in the more populous counties than in rural areas of the state. This proposal would require that half the signatures be collected from each of the two congressional districts.

Democratic Rep. Bob Duchesne of Hudson supports the change.

“We are going to be setting up this feeling in certain parts of the state that they are being railroaded by other parts of the state. That’s not necessary. I think this amendment looks to get at that issue. This isn’t much of a tool to grab some change in the geographic balance, but it is the least we can do,” he says.

Other measures to increase the overall number of signatures, or to require the signatures be collected in each county, have been defeated in the Legislature.

Independent Rep. Kent Ackley of Monmouth says the current system is working. He says Maine voters see through petition campaigns brought by special interests.

“If that were not true, Madam Speaker, Shady Shawn would have his casino right now, we would have Bloomberg’s universal background check program and PETA would have made it illegal to bait bears,” he says.

Democratic Rep. Janice Cooper of Yarmouth agrees that the current process is working. She says trying to limit where signatures can be collected is not the answer to concerns about special interests placing questions on the ballot.

“Referendums are adopted or rejected on a statewide basis, so in the end, it really doesn’t matter where the signatures came from,” she says.

Republican Rep. Ellie Espling of New Gloucester, who has introduced a similar amendment in past sessions that failed, says the proposal deserves to go to the voters.

“I think it is important that we allow this to go out to the people so that they can have the opportunity to chime in on what could be a change to this process, the process that is enshrined in the constitution for them to use,” she says.

The Senate has yet to consider the proposal, but it was supported in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee by a 12-1 vote. It will take a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to finally send the proposal to voters.

This story was originally published April 10, 2018 at 5:08 p.m. ET.