Voters in Houlton cast their ballots in Maine's 2021 local election, which includes Question 1 concerning the Maine CMP corridor. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

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Robert W. Glover is an associate professor of political science and honors at the University of Maine. These views are his own and do not represent an official position of the university or the University of Maine System. He is the co-director of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.  Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Once again this year, Mainers head  to the polls to make law directly through a citizen’s initiative on the controversial Question 1, as well as a $100 million transportation bond and a constitutional amendment on food sovereignty. And yet again we find ourselves asking whether using the ballot to make major policy decisions is problematic for our state.

In truth, there’s not anything inherently bad about Maine’s use of the citizen’s initiative (and the closely related “people’s veto”). But there are potential drawbacks. Mainers must be diligent in recognizing them and guarding against these tendencies.

Criticism of Maine’s direct democratic institutions is not new. Twenty years ago, a slew of bills within the Maine Legislature sought to curb the referendum. Nationally, increased use of the referendum had prompted dozens of restrictionist bills across at least 14 states in response, prompting the nonpartisan National Conference on State Legislatures to convene a task force and issue a report on citizens’ initiatives best practices.

Here in Maine, lawmakers proposed increasing the signatures necessary to place a question on the ballot, putting restrictions on where signatures could be collected, prohibiting a failed referendum from being resubmitted for six years, and more. In the end, these measures were all defeated by a diverse crew known as the “Coalition to Protect the Referendum.”

Recent years have seen similar criticism of the citizen’s initiative. For some, the 2016 election was a catalyst to say “enough is enough.” Voters faced ballot questions on a range of complex issues: ranked-choice voting,  raising taxes to fund education,  marijuana legalization, and  background checks for gun sales.

Enthusiastic fans of democracy likely find use of such referenda exciting and important. Maine is one of only  24 states that allows for citizen-initiated lawmaking via the ballot. So under what circumstances does Maine’s citizen-initiated lawmaking become problematic?

Problem one manifests when leaders evade challenging questions because the citizen’s initiative allows it. Lawmakers may be reluctant to take controversial stances on bills that face an unlikely future or rankle voters and interests in their district. Perhaps they feel that if advocates for a policy really want it, let them take it to the ballot. This isn’t leadership. It’s cowardice. Direct democratic institutions should not be an excuse for representatives to evade responsibilities.  

Problem two occurs when Maine becomes “low-hanging fruit” for well-funded national organizations flinging money at states as part of a 50-state campaign on their issue. Relative to other states, Maine is an easy state to flood with political advertising (as Question 1 has  made us all too aware). We should be skeptical of citizen’s initiatives that view Maine instrumentally as a springboard to a nationwide “cascade” on an issue. And we should rightly ask whether campaigns with significant external funding accurately represent the views of real Mainers.

Problem three is perhaps the most challenging of all, systemic and built into the process. Voters presented with a referendum encounter impossibly complex policy questions collapsed into a “yes or no” binary decision. Such measures neuter negotiation and compromise that might occur in a responsive legislative setting with robust public input. Some policy questions simply require a greater degree of flexibility than the citizen’s initiative allows.

To be clear, none of these challenges justify the concerted ongoing national attempt to undermine the citizen referendum process. Maine’s citizen’s initiative enables citizens a means to bypass non-responsive political institutions. There are vulnerabilities and problems potentially embedded in the process, some unavoidable. As citizens, our best defense is to do the research needed to recognize them and responsibly discharge our duties as citizen lawmakers.