Historically, the dirty work of American democracy is done in the halls of Congress and state legislatures. But in more than half of U.S. states, activists who can’t get any traction for their policies in the state capitol have the option of turning directly to voters.
Maine is one of the 26 states in which progressive groups are using ballot initiatives to move policy. But Republicans are pushing back with legislation that will make it harder to do that.
Both parties have tried to use Maine’s century-old ballot initiative law to push their own issues, be it gay marriage, tax reform or gun control.
Following the most recent election, in which groups successfully convinced voters to raise the minimum wage, tax the wealthy to fund education, legalize marijuana and overhaul the state’s election system, Republican lawmakers have proposed nearly a dozen bills to make it more difficult to qualify for the ballot.
“This process needs to be changed. It is interfering with our elected job as representatives of the people,” says Republican Senate leader Garrett Mason, who is among the advocates for stricter ballot access.
Mason believes well-heeled outside groups have used the initiative too often to implement big, complicated policy changes that are better handled by the Legislature.
“People can come in here and buy our elections. I hate to say that, but it’s happened way too many times recently,” Mason says.
Groups spent over $10 million last year on five ballot initiatives.
More than half of that came from the organization backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which tried and failed to tighten background checks on gun sales.
The background check campaign became the poster child for what conservatives say is a referendum process hijacked by wealthy interest groups. Enter a number of new bills aimed at stopping, or at least slowing, that trend.
One would exclude wildlife issues from the citizen initiative law — an attempt to prevent a third bear-baiting referendum.
Another appears designed to bar gun-related issues from appearing on the ballot at all.
And several others would force campaigns to obtain signatures from rural parts of the state — not just the urban centers — in order to even qualify for the ballot.
“The thought is that we need to make it a little more difficult to get things on the ballot, or not so much difficult but that you would have buy-in from all sections of the state on some kind of equal process,” says state Rep. Lance Harvell, a Wilton Republican.
Harvell has proposed a bill that would ask voters to amend the state Constitution and require ballot campaigns to gather signatures from each of the 35 state senate districts.
Right now, there is no geographical requirement. Campaigns need only to gather signatures equal to 10 percent or more of the number of people who voted in the most recent gubernatorial election.
In his weekly radio address after the election, Gov. Paul LePage said he’ll also propose changing the Constitution around ballot questions.
“Residents in southern Maine should not be able to control the citizen initiative process,” he said.
“This is simply lawlessness,” says Justine Sarver, director of Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a D.C.-based group that provides legal advice and political expertise for liberal ballot campaigns, including last year’s Question 4, which raised the minimum wage.
Sarver says efforts to tighten ballot access by Republicans are hypocritical because conservatives have historically used ballot initiatives to forward their own agendas — and they did that in times when they were lacking political leverage.
Eight years ago, when Democrats controlled half of the nation’s state houses, Republicans turned to citizen initiatives, including a $4.5 million effort in 2009 to overturn Maine’s gay marriage law, and a Republican-backed effort to repeal a tax reform bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
But now the GOP controls two-thirds of the country’s partisan chambers, has total control of government in over half the states, the Congress and the White House.
The Republican dominance, Sarver says, partially explains the emergence of over 160 citizen initiatives nationwide last year, including five in Maine.
“It is, in these times especially, an important tool, both for protest and for policymaking in the progressive realm,” she says.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Republicans don’t see it that way, and are trying to raise the bar for campaigns to qualify for the ballot. Lawmakers in South Dakota are eying a change that would increase the number of signatures to get on the ballot.
They’re also looking to repeal a citizen-initiated ethics law passed by voters in November. Last year Republicans in Michigan sought to derail an initiative to ban fracking by changing election laws.
In other states, Republicans have passed ballot questions to compete with citizen-initiated ballot questions, a tactic critics say is designed overwhelm and confuse voters.
These kind of efforts are not new. Past attempts to change Maine’s ballot law have encountered fierce resistance from both parties, including a protest in the form of a mock funeral at the State House 16 years ago.
A public affairs segment produced by Maine Public Television at the time shows a Cadillac hearse, pallbearers and a casket draped in a bicentennial flag. The dozen or so “mourners” objected to a slate of proposals that would have required petition signatures from multiple counties, banned circulators from polling places and increased the number signatures to get on the ballot.
Mary Adams, a longtime conservative activist, was among them. She and the so-called band of Freedom Fighters had used the initiative law 25 years earlier to repeal the statewide property tax.
In the segment, Adams accused supporters of the changes for ignoring the Constitution and suppressing the voice of the “little guy.”
“There’s going to be a bunch of Freedom Fighters of the future with little money and a tax cause. And you and the others are trying to squelch their chance,” she said.
In that year Adams and other conservatives actually teamed with progressive groups to defeat the changes, among them former Republican Senate President Rick Bennett. Bennett has just stepped down as chairman of the Maine Republican Party, but not before launching a now suspended effort to put an aggressive tax reform and welfare overhaul on the 2016 ballot.
But now, well-financed outside interest groups affiliated with both parties have more at stake in ballot campaigns.
In 2015, the Republican State Leadership Committee, or RSLC, warned donors that progressive groups are using ballot initiatives to gain power. The RSLC, which contributed nearly half a million dollars to GOP-controlled political action committees in Maine last year, vowed to fight back.
And on the left, progressive groups have vowed to fund and make heavy use of a process that many in both parties agree can produce messy laws.
Whether the looming partisan charged debate produces any changes is unclear. But when it comes to ballot initiatives and political parties, the old axiom applies: They love it when they need it, they hate it when they don’t.