Maine’s referendum process isn’t completely broken, but it could certainly use some updates to ensure it is representative of the whole state and, especially, that voters have the necessary information to make significant decisions about our future.
As legislators continue to consider a host of referendum-related bills this session, it’s important that they focus on the very real need to improve the process for Maine voters — and avoid insulting voters’ intelligence.
The referendum process doesn’t need to be reformed because Maine people aren’t capable of making big decisions. They are. The process needs to be reformed, in part, because it currently falls short in providing Maine people relevant information before and while they vote.
The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee is already working on several bills aiming to improve our citizen’s initiative process — and some, like Rep. Joshua Morris’ LD 294, show promise.
Morris’ bill would require a fiscal impact statement for each citizen’s initiative be included on the ballot, which he told the committee on Monday is meant to “ensure voters completely understand what they are voting on.”
The principle here is sound and straightforward: voters should have a clear picture (or, at least, as clear as possible) of what a proposal is expected to cost the state. That’s not a reflection or a knock on their ability to grasp the subject matter of a referendum; it’s a recognition that people should be casting their votes with a readily accessible and trusted prediction — from the state, and not from outside special interests — of the costs involved.
Somewhat ironically, the biggest question about Morris’ approach is its own cost. As Maine’s Director of Elections Melissa Packard said in her testimony neither for nor against Morris’ bill, including this additional information comes with a price tag. More background for voters likely means longer ballots, which adds up to more election costs for the state.
It’s a cost-benefit analysis that the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee — and hopefully the full Legislature, eventually — will have to weigh as it continues to work on this well-aimed legislation.
The committee has also received testimony on LD 252, which would amend the state Constitution to prevent any citizen’s initiative that would contain a new or increased tax or fee.
“Tax policy is complex and difficult to understand,” Sen. Jeff Timberlake, the bill’s sponsor, was quoted as saying in the Portland Press Herald. “It certainly can’t be boiled down to one-sentence, yes or no questions on a ballot. Beyond that it is a dangerous thing for the many to have the power to tax a few.”
Timberlake has a point that complex issues are not best weighed in a “30-second sound bite and flashy commercials,” and there’s a reason we entrust the legislative branch to do most of the work on these issues rather than directly legislate on all matters. But Timberlake’s bill and argument here ultimately fall into the trap of devaluing the capacity of voters rather than empowering them with more information.
“I would be much more comfortable with having the citizens of Maine discern what is truth and what is not in a citizen’s initiative process then have folks make a decision here in the committee rooms of Augusta,” Rep. Kent Ackley pointed out during the Feb. 20 hearing on the bill.
It’s a slippery slope trying to determine what “complex and difficult to understand” issues should be allowed to be addressed via referendum. Energy and health care policy are both incredibly complex. Should we also prevent referenda in those areas?
Rather than turning down that potentially endless and unproductive road — which could cripple the referendum process rather than help fix it — legislators should instead focus on legislation like Morris’ to expand and improve the information voters have before them on the ballot.
Let’s not pretend that the Legislature is some paragon of higher thought, capable of grasping and solving issues that the general public just can’t understand. But let’s also not pretend that voters currently have access to all the necessary and timely information they need to make big decision through our citizen’s initiative process.