There’s a lot to be concerned about as Maine voters complain of petitioners using aggressive and misleading tactics to gather the voter signatures needed to advance a ballot initiative to allow a casino in York County, which would be Maine’s third.
First, signature gatherers should be forthcoming and honest about the nature of the initiative for which they are circulating petitions.
State law requires that those circulating petitions allow potential signers to view an official summary of the initiative they’re seeking to place on the ballot and a fiscal impact statement. And the law requires that they attest to personally witnessing each voter signature they collect.
But Maine could consider additional requirements to ensure initiatives don’t end up on the ballot as a result of dishonesty. One possibility is an explicit prohibition on misrepresenting the contents of a ballot initiative with meaningful penalties spelled out for not complying. Another is a requirement that petition circulators disclose their identities and whether they are collecting signatures on a paid or volunteer basis. (Maine previously tried to outlaw paying signature gatherers by the signature, but a judge found that law unconstitutional in 1999.)
Second, it’s too easy for an interested party to place an initiative on the ballot for a statewide vote.
A bill pending before the Maine Legislature this year proposes a constitutional amendment to require, essentially, that a similar proportion of collected signatures come from each of the state’s two congressional districts. This initiative is on the right track, but we would recommend a signature apportionment based on state Senate district (there are 35) rather than congressional district to ensure an initiative only makes it to the ballot with a true demonstration of statewide support. We also think the current signature threshold — 10 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election — is too low.
Third, what should concern Maine residents about the initiative to place a York County casino measure on the ballot is what state policymakers haven’t done to address this very circumstance.
Maine is home to two casinos today not because elected officials long ago assessed the potential casino gambling market in the region, determined Maine could realistically support two casinos and decided that the casinos would advance Maine’s existing tourism and economic development priorities.
Rather, Maine has two casinos because commercial gaming interests — including the same Las Vegas developer connected with the current York County casino push — used the citizen initiative process to gather enough signatures to force popular votes on the issue. The gaming interests essentially wrote themselves into state law and fashioned radically different revenue distribution schemes in order to attract public support in the areas that host the casinos.
Lawmakers formed the state Gambling Control Board, and the board then wrote casino gaming rules and license requirements in reaction to then-pending proposals.
Maine has never had a forward-looking casino gaming policy, which has made the state vulnerable to the whims of commercial gaming interests with their eye on the Maine market.
What would help at this point is a moratorium on new casinos, allowing lawmakers the full opportunity to assess the state’s capacity for more gaming facilities. (We have our doubts that the market could support another casino, especially with new casinos in Massachusetts and another under consideration in New Hampshire.) If lawmakers decided a new casino to be in Maine’s best interests, they could then follow the advice of a gaming consultant they hired in 2014, who outlined what a statewide gaming strategy — including rules for current and future operators — could look like.
It’s time Maine stopped subjecting itself to the whims of outside gaming interests with the means to force popular votes on gaming laws that they write to their own liking.