AUGUSTA, Maine — Eight referendum questions on Maine’s Tuesday ballot come with serious legal implications, giving voters new ways to potentially violate the state Constitution and old ways to keep doing so under the letter of the law.
Major constitutional questions have been raised about two of the questions that are among the most likely to pass. Another two aim to fix parts of Maine law that courts have struck down as unconstitutional. Voters look likely to reject one of those solutions for the third time.
It is a reminder of the stakes in a relatively low-profile 2023 election. Only Question 3, which aims to put the infrastructure of Maine’s major electric utilities under control of an elected board, is the subject of an active campaign. Voters know less about the other questions on the ballot, according to a University of New Hampshire poll released last month.
In that same survey, roughly three-quarters of Maine voters said they planned to vote for questions 2 and 4. Respectively, those questions attempt to prohibit foreign electioneering in Maine and provide for a vehicle “right to repair” that is backed by independent garages and generic parts manufacturers but opposed by automakers.
The electioneering bill comes out of the 2021 referendum against the hydropower corridor through western Maine that was led by Central Maine Power Co. and the province-owned Hydro-Quebec. Question 2 would ban companies that are at least 5 percent owned by foreign governments from influencing candidate or referendum elections in Maine.
Gov. Janet Mills opposed a similar proposal in 2021, then vetoed the electioneering bill earlier this year in a move that sent it to the ballot. The former Democratic attorney general cited constitutional questions about the law, including from the Maine Press Association, a newspaper trade group that called for a veto. The Bangor Daily News belongs to the association.
That group said the proposal would violate the First Amendment by making news outlets screen advertisements and opinion pieces, directly imposing “an onerous censorship mandate directly on news outlets.” The Campaign Legal Center, a national group that backs Question 2, told Maine Public that media groups are exaggerating the requirements.
Question 4 also comes with constitutional concerns. It would require automakers to standardize the electronic on-board diagnostic systems that are now prevalent and make information and parts needed to fix issues with vehicles accessible to independent garages and owners.
Massachusetts passed a similar law in 2020. A group representing automakers filed a lawsuit called it unenforceable and unconstitutional because federal law preempts it. While the administration of President Joe Biden initially told automakers not to comply, it reversed itself over the summer to say the law could take effect with changes.
Subaru and Kia have disabled electronic systems in new vehicles there after the state began enforcing the law in June, according to Wired. A judge in the ongoing case has also said the law may be “unattainable” and could harm the auto industry, the Boston Globe reported. So it’s unclear where such a law would go here.
Two of the four constitutional amendments on the ballot also amount to bipartisan fixes for areas in which judges have said Maine is already violating the Constitution.
Question 7 looks to align the state with a federal court ruling in 2022 that struck down Maine’s requirement that signature gatherers trying to get items on the ballot must be Maine residents, while Question 8 would formally allow people under guardianship for mental illness to vote in Maine elections after a judge deemed the state’s prohibition unconstitutional in 2001.
Neither of these prohibitions have been enforced since those court rulings, meaning these questions won’t functionally change anything. In 1997 and 2000, Maine voters were asked to strike the voting prohibition and they refused. The UNH poll found Question 8 was underwater with voters, so the state might not be done wrestling with that issue.