Move to restrict signature gathering at polls assailed at hearing

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AUGUSTA — At polling places across Maine, those gathering signatures for ballot initiatives have often set up a table on the way out to offer voters the opportunity to put their names on required petitions.

For supporters, it’s a sign of a thriving democracy. For some, though, it’s a growing hassle.

“We’ve come to hate going to vote because of facing those folks wanting our signature on this, that or the other thing,” David Kent of Standish told lawmakers Wednesday. “It’s very aggravating to us.”

He said that both he and his wife now vote by absentee ballot “so we don’t have to face this nonsense.”

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A measure proposed by Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap would clamp down on gathering signatures at polling places, as well as a number of other changes aimed in part at clearing the way for voters who don’t want to deal with anything other than casting a ballot.

Ann Luther of the Maine League of Women Voters said her organization believes the proposals under consideration would eviscerate citizen-powered referendum drives, leaving them in the hands of big-money outside interests instead.

She also warned that clearing away the petition collectors, bake sales, glad-handing candidates and exit polls would create a sterile polling place that would destroy the messy reality of Election Day in Maine.

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee listened to the pros and cons of the measure for three hours at a public hearing on the first day of the new session. Most of those who spoke up were critics of the idea.

The panel likely won’t take action for weeks.

Much of the controversial bill concerns housekeeping issues that don’t appear to raise many concerns. But there is plenty of interest in provisions that would revise rules about what goes on at the polling places.

“We have a lot to talk about,” said Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, the panel’s chairman.

As written, the measure would create a 50-foot corridor between the parking lot and the balloting where voters could not be hit up for signatures or anything else. They would, though, be free to move outside the corridor to talk to candidates, sign petitions, or talk to reporters or researchers.

Julie Flynn, the deputy secretary of state, said that under the proposal “anything goes” outside the restricted corridor.

She said that perhaps the 50-foot corridor is too wide. She said 15 feet might be enough, because courts generally want restrictions to be narrowly tailored.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said she’s against any measure that would make it harder for people to collect signatures for possible ballot questions. She said that giving people less power “seems contrary to the ideals upon which our country and state were founded.”

Jon Silverman of Augusta said most signature gatherers are “far too shy to stop anyone,” let alone to disturb voters. Those who are too aggressive, he said, can be dealt with through far less onerous means.

Cathleen Nichols of Falmouth said she’s seen people who are gathering signatures block part of the exit from the polls. Others said it only takes a few people talking at a table to tie up foot traffic.

Collecting signatures outside the polls “is astonishingly difficult,” Silverman said. It’s easier to get them to sign when they are already thinking of elections, he said.

Betsy Sweet, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Hallowell, said legislators should “just use some common sense” and “just some common Maine courtesy.”

“Let’s do better training of petitioners,” she said, perhaps by having signature collectors watch a video about how to do the work politely.

Patti Dubois, city clerk of Waterville, said clerks who oversee elections at the local level didn’t ask for the changes. She said, however, that they have heard plenty of complaints from voters who don’t like being accosted for their signatures.

Even so, she said, she is skeptical of creating a perimeter that would force those pushing for referendums to move outside the building, where it can be dark and harder to monitor.

“Voters may feel even more accosted out in the parking area,” Dubois said.

Rep. Kent Ackley, an independent from Monmouth, said the measure would “make it more difficult for Mainers to participate in self-government” by joining together to put a ballot question before the voters.

Make it harder to gather signatures, he said, and they’ll wind up being a tool only of those with the wealth to pay people to collect them. It will be “business as usual” for big-money interests, Ackley said, but harder for grass-roots efforts.

He said democracy “should not be relegated to the parking lot.”

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who co-sponsored the bill, said he won’t back it if the restrictions on signature collecting remain in the measure.

“I’m someone who believes wholeheartedly in the referendum process,” Jackson said.

scollins@sunjournal.com

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  • CLibbey

    C’mon. Toughen up Mainers. You can choose to just walk past these tables and not sign. Some of us are actually interested in what petitioners have to say.