File photo of a person signing a petition to put a referendum item on a Maine ballot in 2016. Credit: Micky Bedell

An attempt to require stricter geographic representation for citizen-initiated referendums in Maine is likely dead following a close vote Tuesday in the House of Representatives.

LD 31 sought to ensure that people seeking to put questions on the state ballot balance signature-gathering more equitably between Maine’s two congressional districts. The bill would require citizen initiative proponents to gather signatures in each district equal to at least 10 percent of the votes cast for governor in that district during the previous election.

Under current law, citizen-initiated referendums require 61,123 verified signatures — which equals 10 percent of the votes cast statewide in the previous gubernatorial election — though there is no restriction over where they are gathered.

The bill would require an amendment to the Maine Constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature followed by a majority vote in a statewide referendum. The bill achieved a two-thirds majority in the Senate earlier Thursday with a 25-10 vote but failed Tuesday afternoon in the House, 93-50.

Supporters — many of whom said the current system short-changes rural Mainers in the 2nd District — argued that the bill would better represent all the people of Maine. Opponents said the existing system sets a high enough bar, and that to change it would subvert the “one person, one vote” principle.

Some, such as Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, said lawmakers should send the question to voters, who are best equipped to decide.

“We have a duty to the citizens of the state of Maine to protect the voting system,” Cushing said during Senate debate. “To let this go forward for a public vote would be to do so.”

A majority of Democrats in each chamber opposed the bill, advocating against altering the current process.

“One signature is one signature no matter where in Maine it is collected,” said Rep. Deane Rykerson, D-Kittery.

Calls to make the process harder have intensified in recent years, which have annually seen several citizen-initiated referendums on ballots. Certain groups have shown that by using paid signature gatherers, they can collect the necessary 61,123 signatures with relative ease.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting, for example, managed to collect and have certified more than that number in less than 90 days to place on the June 12 ballot a people’s veto of a bill the Legislature passed last year.

The bill faces further votes in both chambers but is likely dead. Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, who sponsored the bill, expressed deep frustration.

“This bill would have allowed the people of Maine to decide whether or not they want to make changes to the referendum process and Democrats in the House chose to make that decision for them,” Espling said.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.