Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, looks through papers in the House chamber in this 2019 file photo. He is leading a lawsuit against the state over referendum petition requirements as he tries to get a question on the ballot barring noncitizens from voting in local elections. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A Republican legislator leading an effort to bar noncitizens from being able to vote in local elections is leading a lawsuit against the state of Maine targeting a requirement that people who gather signatures to get referendums on the ballot live in the state.

The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor last Thursday by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, his political committee, a national group backing the effort and a Michigan man who wants to work for the campaign, all of whom allege the state’s requirement will prevent them from meeting a February deadline to qualify their effort for the ballot.

The Maine Constitution requires that people circulating these petitions be registered to vote in the state. Faulkingham’s challenge targets a 2015 law passed by the Legislature that looked to close a loophole in which campaigns could hire out-of-staters to gather signatures while being accompanied by witnesses who live in Maine and required groups to provide the state with the names of people paid to collect signatures.

It was championed by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine as a response to an unsuccessful referendum effort a year earlier that looked to ban bear baiting, trapping and hounding. The sportsman’s group led the opposition to that effort and complained about opponents using that loophole, which the secretary of state’s office said was virtually impossible for it to prevent.

The complaint from Faulkingham cites the cold winter months as the reason for needing to hire out-of-state help. The group says the restriction violates the U.S. Constitution and asks the court to halt enforcement of the law while the complaint makes its way through the courts. In a statement, Faulkingham said the law “undercuts the process.”

The effort likely faces an uphill court battle, as judges have recently been reluctant to overturn Maine’s signature gathering laws. When the original bill was first proposed in 2015, parts were challenged by the secretary of state’s office and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine as unconstitutional, but the most controversial parts were omitted and the law passed easily.

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down some similar restrictions on these types of campaign efforts, including one in Colorado in 1999 that required gatherers to wear badges saying their names and disclosing whether they were being paid. The high court has also ruled that states cannot ban paid collection or institute onerous restrictions with no compelling reason.

If it was successful, Faulkingham’s legal effort would equate to “opening the door” further to out-of-state groups that want to influence Maine elections, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

The referendum effort began in 2019 as part of a national push from conservative groups and has restarted gathering signatures after the effort was suspended later that year. Faulkingham’s political committee, We The People, is running the effort and is largely funded by the conserative Liberty Initiative Fund.

The referendum may not change Maine policy. People who are not U.S. citizens cannot vote in federal and state elections under the Maine Constitution and Attorney General Aaron Frey said in 2019 cities and towns are already barred from allowing noncitizens to vote in other elections under state law. A 2009 opinion by Gov. Janet Mills while she served as attorney general said the state Constitution would not bar passage of a bill allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections, but that measure did not pass.

No Maine city or town has passed a bid to allow it, though activists in Portland have twice tried to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections. One 2010 measure failed at the ballot and another bid in 2018 was delayed by the city council.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...