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More petition rules: Good or bad for Maine’s direct democracy?

By John Christie
Senior Reporter

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

Two Democratic state legislators want to place stricter rules on the gathering of signatures on petitions that send ballot questions to voters.

State Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham and Sen. John Nutting of Leeds said their experiences with petitions, such as the made-up signatures in Greene, justify more regulation.

Their bills will be heard in a public committee hearing on Feb. 8 at the State House.

Republicans, professional signature gatherers and successful petitioners say the system works well now and that Democrats have a hidden agenda — to make it harder for citizens to overrule the Democratically-controlled legislature.
Charles Webster, chairman of the state Republican Party, said citizens need a way to overrule the legislature because legislators like Berry are “out of touch with what the people want, what the working people want.”

Berry, House majority whip, says the current system creates an “incentive to lie and cheat” and believes his bill will strengthen the citizen initiative process by increasing transparency and accountability.

Berrys bill requires the secretary of state “to make electronic lists of certified signatures” from petitions; doubles the time a citizen has to examine petitions from five to 10 days; and allows signers who change their mind to ask to withdraw their names from the petition.

Nuttings bill adds a fine for violating the current petition- gathering statute and prohibits a person convicted of fraud from circulating petitions for up to five years.

Both bills require that anyone paid to circulate a petition and businesses that hire circulators to register with the state.

Marc Mutty, director of public affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Portland, has run two referendum, including last years successful overturning of he same sex marriage law.

He said the electronic lists of petition signers could end up being posted on the internet for anyone to get the names and address for people they dont agree with.

“For the life of me, I cant understand that unless you wanted to harass people. And we had a lot of cases of harassment” over the same sex vote, he said.
Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro is one the leaders in the Still Fed Up With Taxes group that placed the tax reform bill on the June ballot, partly by using paid signature gatherers.

He said the two bills “are nothing but a political strategy to embarrass us … some people would like to make it more difficult to get signatures.”

The recent history of citizen initiatives and peoples veto in Maine has been to often challenge the policies of Democrats, who have dominated state government for most of the past decade or more — the same period as the upsurge in citizens initiatives.

Petitions have sought to overturn Democratic Gov. John Baldaccis school consolidation bill, multiple attempts to limit state spending and decrease taxes and to veto same sex marriage.

Berry insists he isnt aiming to make it harder to place issues on the ballot, but he does believe some peitition signed “are sold a bill of goods” or dont look carefully at what theyre signing.

Stavros Mendros, a former legislator whose consulting business includes hiring signature gatherers, said more regulations would make it harder for local groups to gather signatures, and easier for the well-oiled national operators to get more of Maines business.

Bills such as the ones coming up for a hearing, he said, “are all about making it harder” to get an issue on the ballot.

“Its a threat to the legislature,” he said. “They want to be the only ones making laws, and they hate it when issues go to the voters.”