Political junkies — like me — tend to think everyone follows the daily political scrum the same way that we do.
I recently had occasion to speak to a group of people, none of which I would consider very plugged into the world of politics. Each was what you might think of as an “average Mainer” — somebody who has a family, a job they go to every day just to get by and doesn’t obsessively consume political news the way that I do.
In other words, regular people.
I don’t mean to talk about them as though they are an alien species, but it really is remarkable how different the perspective is from the non-politically engaged. And by the way, I mean that as a compliment, because people that have chosen to unplug themselves from the rancid swamp that is modern politics are far more grounded and rational than those consumed by it.
It is also helpful to remember that most people are like them, and not like me.
Regardless, I happened to overhear this group of people as they started to talk about the referendums that will appear on our ballot this November. While certainly some of them were expressing an opinion on it — the “yes” on Question 1 sentiment slightly outnumbered “no” on 1 — what was fascinating to me was how confused everyone was.
Almost to a person, this group of a dozen or so people expressed their frustration at not knowing what to really think. None of them seemed to trust any of the messaging — pro or con — that they were getting from the various campaigns. Most also talked about certain claims that have been made by the campaigns, and “not knowing what to think” about it, because they could see the other side of the coin.
There was also tremendous confusion about who was behind certain commercials. More than one person wasn’t even sure who was making what case, particularly when it came to the dueling ads scaremongering about “who was behind” the other side’s campaign.
And then there was the confusion about the issues themselves. Despite being the most expensive referendum campaign in history, basic questions about what Question 1 would actually do and its actual impact remain. Will this unquestionably kill the Central Maine Power corridor? Does the power go entirely to Massachusetts or does any of it come to Maine? Will this result in our power bill going down? How much money does Maine get for the deal? Just how much of the state is going to be affected by the construction? What will it mean for clean energy in the state and is this a good thing or a bad thing? What is up with retroactivity? Is it as bad as they say, and does it already happen?
There were no end of questions, even among people who had made up their minds. Which brings me to my point.
I’m not here to tell you what to think about the CMP corridor. Is CMP an evil company, and is their corridor project a disaster for the state? Is the corridor a good development project that will benefit Maine? I leave that determination up to you.
But after such a monumentally expensive campaign, featuring misleading sludge shoveled into the minds of Mainers — from both sides — and $23 million spent in just the last three weeks, I do have to ask a simple question: Is this really how we should be making decisions about public policy?
No matter how much money is spent, indeed perhaps because of it, we have a very confused electorate barely able to make heads or tails of the unbelievably complex issues at the heart of Question 1. And that’s no insult to the Maine voter, as the confusion is a reflection of an incredibly complex public policy question being boiled down to millions of dollars of oversimplified, misleading 30-second ads funded by dueling corporate interests that are trying to use the referendum process to fight for market share.
I’ve made this argument many times before, but this is a stark reminder of why I am so opposed to using the referendum process in this way. Complicated matters of public policy deserve a deliberative process in a serious legislative setting, with the decision made by the elected representatives of the people. Doing things the way we are doing now is perhaps the worst possible way I can think of to make law.