Along with snow, chilly temperatures, and a muddy road or two (or three or four) it’s the season for Legislative Documents (LD’s) to be introduced in Augusta, even though they’ve been introduced before (more than once) and defeated (also more than once). This reference is to bills that would suppress the right to sponsor citizen initiatives and eliminate the option to override by popular vote. In other words, the failure of our elected officials to carry out the wishes of the people. Consider these samples.
LD 53 suggests that if a person gets paid based on the number of signatures collected to put an initiative on the ballot that somehow fraud may occur, overlooking the obvious fact that the Secretary of State must certify those signatures to determine their validity. That leaves us with the issue of getting paid for collecting signatures. Do we really expect all those who perform this vital task of making the people’s voice heard do so on their own time and without compensation? If so, we should reasonably expect others who serve the public to volunteer as well, beginning perhaps with public officials. So long as the signatures are certified, there’s no rationale why those who collect them should not be paid.
LD 31 would add more difficulty in gaining signatures for initiatives by requiring that they must not be less that 10 percent of the total vote for Governor in each congressional district. Among other factors, this bill ignores the disparity of population in the districts and would also undermine the principle of majority rule. LD 31, like LD 53, is meant to impede the collection of signatures and discourage the creation of citizen initiatives.
LD 212 sinks to new depths to achieve the same goal, focusing this time not on the two congressional districts but on the 35 senate districts, requiring a 10 percent vote from each one. Why not go even further? Why not require 10 percent from each town, or neighborhood, block, or even household?
All of these bills, of course, are intended to make the citizen initiative process more complicated and difficult, not less so. Perhaps they'll culminate to the point where it will become so impossible as to be abandoned altogether, a result that would suit some groups and individuals in Augusta just fine.
Why is any of this important? Because during our nation’s early history, the right to vote was confined to the privileged few.In most states, only white males who were landowners and members of an established Protestant church had the power of the ballot.Everyone else was excluded from having a direct role in the decisions made by their own government.
Over time, and largely because of the industrial revolution and the Civil War, barriers against voting have been challenged and removed, replacing exclusion with inclusion, though efforts to achieve that equality have never been easy or immediate. It took many long years of struggle and protest until the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. constitution in 1920 that allowed women to vote.
The trend in the country in terms of empowering its citizens has been a forward one, but these bills would have us return to the restrictive policies of the past when a few spoke for many, making decisions that reflected minority rule and ignoring majority opinion.
Yet Mainers are indeed fortunate.For more than a hundred years, the citizens of our state have enjoyed the constitutional right to create and support a citizens’ initiative.It is the bedrock of participatory government and democracy in its purest most direct form. It is also sacrosanct — and should always remain so.
Comments on these bills can be sent to Karen Montell, clerk of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee at 207-287-1692 in Augusta.
Don Loprieno is a published author and has maintained a life-long interest in education and history. He lives in Bristol, Maine where he is active in community affairs. Don is a frequent contributor to a radio program called Into the Wilderness broadcast Tuesday evenings from 8-8:30 on WMPG FM 90.9.