In this Aug. 2019 file photo, U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock, Jr. laughs has he listens to remarks at a ceremony where his portrait was unveiled at the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building and Courthouse. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Circulating petitions to get questions on the Maine ballot is “core political speech” that cannot be impeded by residency requirements, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in the first major challenge to state law under Secretary of State Shenna Bellows.

U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock said in a 76-page ruling that state law requiring petition circulators to be residents of Maine act as a “severe burden” on signature gatherers and are “not justified” by the state’s interest in overseeing elections. The decision came as the judge required the state to stop enforcing the law as the case moves forward.

The plaintiffs’ case looked to be an uphill one after Woodcock said the lawsuit was unlikely to succeed in January, but he reversed himself on Tuesday. The U.S. Supreme Court has nullified similar restrictions on ballot campaigns, including one in Colorado in 1999 requiring signature gatherers to wear badges saying their names and whether they were being paid.

Bellows, a Democrat, has the option of appealing the decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals. A spokesperson said her office is currently reviewing the opinion, which puts on hold a law requiring people who circulate petitions to get questions on the Maine ballot be registered to vote in the towns they circulate in.

The lawsuit was brought 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 on the referendum aimed at barring non-citizens from voting in local elections. Faulkingham’s effort has until Feb. 26 to turn in more than 63,000 signatures needed to make the ballot.

Faulkingham said on Wednesday that his campaign has gathered over 80,000 signatures ahead of a Feb. 26 due date, well above the necessary threshold of just over 63,000 signatures. They must be deemed valid by municipal clerks and Bellows’ office.

Their lawsuit challenges a 2015 law passed by the Legislature aiming to close a loophole allowing campaigns to hire out-of-state signature gatherers while being accompanied by Maine residents.

The referendum, should it succeed, would likely not change state policy, as people who are not citizens are not allowed to vote in federal and state elections and Attorney General Aaron Frey has already determined they are not allowed to participate in local elections.

Similar efforts from conservative groups to bar noncitizen voting have grown in recent years across the country. Faulkingham kicked off his push in 2019 and put it on hold for months before relaunching it more recently. His political committee, We the People, is largely funded by the conservative Liberty Initiative Fund.