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Do you favor amending the Constitution of Maine to remove a provision requiring a circulator of a citizen’s initiative or people’s veto petition to be a resident of Maine and a registered voter in Maine, requirements that have been ruled unconstitutional in federal court?
The most important words in this ballot question, which seeks to amend the Maine Constitution, are the last nine.
In a nutshell, a federal court has ruled that a provision in the state Constitution that requires petition circulators to be Maine residents and registered voters in Maine violates the U.S. Constitution.
As a result, that provision is unenforceable and needs to come out of the Maine Constitution.
Like us, and even Maine’s Secretary of State, you may think that the people gathering signatures to get citizen’s initiatives or people’s vetos on the ballot in Maine should live here and vote here. That seems like a reasonable requirement.
Maine lawmakers thought so too. In 2015, after a contentious referendum on bear hunting, the Legislature passed a law doubling down on the residency requirement.
Federal courts, however, have disagreed, ruling that Maine’s residency and voter registration standards for signature gatherers run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.
Federal district court judge John Woodcock noted the conflicting interests in a February 2021 ruling. First, there is the desire to, essentially, keep Maine elections for Mainers by restricting petition signature gatherers to Maine residents and voters. Second, there is the constitutionally required protection of free speech rights, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled include a broad swath of activities around elections and campaigning.
“On the one hand, the public has a strong interest in ensuring the freedom of speech and constitutionality of election laws,” Woodcock wrote in the 2021 decision. “On the other hand, the public has a strong interest in the regulation of referendum petitions and in protecting the integrity and grassroots nature of the direct initiative and people’s veto power.”
“The court recognizes that the public has strong competing interests on both sides but concludes the public has a greater interest in upholding its constitutionally protected freedom of speech,” Woodcock concluded.
He noted, and we’ll emphasize, those who sign citizen initiative petitions and people’s veto petitions must be registered Maine voters. That will continue to be true no matter what happens with Question 7. Signatures that can’t be verified to be from Maine voters are disqualified during an in-depth process where every signature is reviewed by a person.
Judge Woodcock’s ruling was upheld by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2022. The residency and voter registration requirements “likely impose a severe burden on core political speech,” a three-judge panel wrote in their decision.
Since it has been ruled unconstitutional and is no longer enforced by the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, this provision should be removed from the Maine Constitution.
That’s what a yes vote on Question 7 would do.
It should be noted that even if Question 7 were to fail, that would not reinstate the requirement that signature gatherers reside and register to vote in Maine. That law is null and void because of the federal court rulings.
So, a yes vote on Question 7 does not change current law or practice in Maine. It simply ensures that the Maine Constitution is in line with the U.S. Constitution.