March 29, 2020

Is referendum process worth keeping?> Maine People’s Alliance argues in defense

In a recent Op-ed piece (BDN, Dec. 24) and nearby today, Sean Faircloth attacks our most cherished political concept, democracy, and the hundreds of thousands of Mainers who support it. If one were to use his premise for ending the referendum process in Maine one would also have to abolish voting. Faircloth contends that voters are woefully uninformed and too busy with their lives to decide how to vote on referendum questions. Maine People’s Alliance strongly disagrees with his view.

While Faircloth’s commentary is glib and entertaining, it is incorrect. Among other things, it compares apples to oranges (by, among other things, comparing Maine to California). He mentions that California averages 10 ballot questions a year and that the signatures gathered are bought and paid for by special interests. This is simply not the case for us.

First of all, we have had only nine referendums in the past nine years. Hardly a deluge and hardly big money boys who have bought us the various questions on which we, the people, have made decisions. The majority of our referendums have been substantially run at the grassroots level. We now have a bottle bill, stopped Ma Bell from raising basic rates, passed the Sensible Transportation Act and, in maybe our finest hour, adopted the Maine Clean Election Act which has changed the face of campaign finance not only in our state of Maine but throughout the country.

The Maine Clean Election Act is now being emulated in at least 20 other states and is the basis for two bills in Congress; Sen. Paul Wellstone’s Clean Election bill (S 918) and Rep. John Tierney’s Clean Election bill (HR 2199). This is no small feat. In fact, it will help to end the hold that special interests have had on our political system for decades. We would not have had such a victory had it not been for our solid and time honored tradition of referendums in this state. If there is a concern in regards to big money special interests hijacking referendums, let’s extend and put into law campaign finance reform in the referendum process.

MPA is convinced that we need to keep this voice of the people intact. There have already been many attacks on the referendum process and the MPA has worked to ward off such short-sighted assaults. Last year our Legislature had several bills which would have served to undermine the process. MPA, being aware of the value of our referendum process, worked to defeat those bills … and we succeeded. Most of the good people of our state didn’t even realize that this attempt was made. It was only our vigilance and commitment to citizen democracy that stopped the violation of our commendable referendum procedure.

While we agree completely that Question 1 in 1995 was a heinous attempt to undermine equal rights in our state (the referendum that would have precluded gays and lesbians from protection under the law), let us not remove our freedoms just because we (albeit vehemently) oppose someone else’s choice to exercise them.

More to the point, let’s not forget that it was defeated by the same “uninformed” people that Faircloth refers to in his Op-ed piece. We believe the results of that referendum helped to prompt the Maine Legislature to pass the equal rights bill last spring. If the members of the Legislature did not have the “guts” to pass equal rights protection in the last 20 years (which is how long the bill had been presented to the body), it found the “guts” to do so after the people of this state spoke.

We do not have a “naughty secret” around referendums in this state. We have the basis for sound government and the ability to include the people of this state in the decision-making process of our government. Nearly 100 years ago, a diverse group of Mainers comprising the Maine Grange, organized labor, the Maine Conference of the Methodist Church and many others pressed for the initiative and referendum. It was won through considerable struggle against the opposition of politicians and powerful corporations which ruled the Legislature.

And as far as people being too busy with their lives to make the necessary determinations on their futures, we reject that idea. In order for us to have a government of the people and by the people we all have to participate. We need to make the time. As voter turnout results show, our participation in Maine is better than nearly any other state.

We have produced laudable and honorable results with our referendums in Maine. Many citizens living in states without the initiative and referendum would be exhilarated by the ability to wield the same kind of grass-roots power we have with our government here in Maine. There is no reason to dismantle our constitution. The MPA believes we need to keep our referendums process intact.

Kathleen McGee is campaign finance reform organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance.

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