Restoring integrity to Maine’s ballot initiative process

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Since Maine became a state in 1820, we have prided ourselves on having a strong participatory form of government. To help keep lawmakers in check, in 1911, our state adopted the initiative and referendum process to extend this participatory process even further to residents.

While research indicates that the citizen-initiated process was exercised in a limited way in the early part of the 20th century, University of Maine political scientist Dr. Kenneth Palmer points out that the initiative and the referendum processes have been used more than 40 times since 1970.

In recent years, Maine’s ballot has been flush with issues for voters to choose from, ranging from efforts to improve the election process with the adoption of the Maine Clean Elections Act, to efforts to repeal taxes on soda and beer. In all of these cases, our citizens are empowered, unlike most other states in our country, to bring forward ideas that may not be discussed by lawmakers at the legislative level or to challenge laws that have been put forward.

Maine’s ballot initiative process has been largely unchecked or unchanged since it was created and many have found noticeable flaws. According to the national Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, the integrity of our state’s process does not meet the high standards found in other states. In fact, Maine receives a “D” for the integrity of its process.

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The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center points out that in Maine, we really don’t have a clue who is out there collecting signatures for ballot initiatives. The integrity of the process gets even murkier because, in recent years, people or groups advocating for different causes often hired out-of-state companies that paid people to collect signatures. While it is not uncommon for individuals to get paid to work on campaigns, the act of getting paid for each signature collected starts to raise some concerns.

In Greene, longtime Town Clerk Sally Hebert discovered some serious irregularities on a petition this past fall when she found that one of the signatures was from her neighbor, someone she knew very well. She realized that it did not look like her signature, and she called her neighbor and was told that her neighbor had not signed the petition. So Hebert checked the next signature down on the petition, and discovered that person didn’t sign the petition, either. She kept going, and realized that the 10th name down on the petition was on behalf of someone who had a funeral in 2004. Ultimately, she discovered that all 29 signatures were forged by the paid petition-gatherer. Not one signature on the petition was legitimate.

Greene was not the only town that discovered there were paid signature-gatherers who had turned in fraudulent petitions. With the increase in the number of ballot initiatives and paid signature-gatherers, there is a growing problem across Maine. For those who do make a living traveling from state to state to gather signatures, we sponsored LD 1730, An Act To Strengthen the Ballot Initiative Process, which helps keep this process in check by establishing some simple, common-sense rules to restore integrity to the ballot initiative process. Some of the new requirements would:

• Require that a clerk must copy fraudulent petitions and call the Secretary of State, rather than just returning them.

• Require that a petition must be signed and notarized prior to being submitted to a municipal clerk for verification.

• Require a unique identifier on petitions for a direct initiative of legislation and people’s veto referendum that comprises the circulator’s initials and a sequential number representing the petitions circulated. If petitions are left unattended, they can be identified and nullified.

• Create a registration requirement for petition organizations that are compensated to organize, supervise or manage the circulation of petitions for a direct initiative or people’s veto.

Ultimately, the purpose of this proposal is very clear. Establish sound and sensible criteria to address ongoing fraud that is growing among paid signature gatherers. At the same time, when the bill does become a law, it will not affect those who voluntarily circulate petitions. We are very pleased the bill received an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in the House with 119 representatives in favor and 23 against, and a vote of 20-15 in favor in the Senate.

Sen. John Nutting represents the communities of Greene, Leeds, Lisbon, Livermore, Livermore Falls, Mechanic Falls, Minot, Sabattus, Turner and Wales in Senate District 17. Rep. Stacy Dostie represents the communities of Greene and Sabattus in House District 75.

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