April 05, 2020

No surprise that Sean Faircloth’s recent Op-ed commentary on referendums got a rousing reaction; that’s why he wrote it. The tension in a democratic republic between what the people control directly and what they delegate to representatives has yet to be entirely decided after 220 years of practice. It is a debate that won’t be settled soon.

In the interest of provoking further thought on the issue, however, we have asked Mr. Faircloth, a former state senator from Bangor, to reprise his arguments against referendums, and paired them with commentary from Kathleen McGee, who is the campaign finance reform organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance. Ms. McGee offers a vigorous defense of the current referendum system.

The referendum process is an uplifting expression of grass-roots activism and a maddening exercise in which no proposal can be altered, even when modest compromise would bring widespread support. Not even the most ardent supporter of referendums would have all laws decided by popular vote; the most dedicated detractor would hesitate to have the practice banned entirely.

Referendums have caused more concern lately because there are more of them now than just a decade or so ago. This isn’t an accident. It is the result of a change in the way signatures are collected. Since 1987, signature gatherers have been allowed at polling stations, giving them easy access to large numbers of residents. The result has been a steady increase in the number of attempts to solve state issues by popular vote.

A bill in the Legislature last session would have moved the signature gatherers at least 250 feet from the polls, but it lacked sufficient support. If the trend toward greater numbers of referendums continues, similar bills are certain to be proposed. The arguments on today’s Op-ed Page could be useful in determining which way those bills go.

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