Mainers need to reclaim citizen initiatives from out-of-state astroturfing

In addition to a divisive presidential election that is increasingly alienating many Americans, Mainers have a plethora of citizen initiatives on their ballot this fall. Like 23 other states, Maine allows its citizens to propose legislation directly, bypassing the Legislature to pass new laws.

This process was originally intended as a reform, to allow the public to consider legislation that the Legislature refused to take up, much less pass. Indeed, over the years it has been used successfully to pass policies that many Mainers now take for granted, for better or for worse. Usually, grassroots groups of Mainers who want a particular change have driven these efforts. That’s perfectly well and good. That’s exactly what the original proponents of the citizen initiative process intended.

Of late, however, we have seen a different kind of citizen initiative emerge in our state. National groups with narrow agendas, recognizing that Maine is an inexpensive state in which to campaign, have begun targeting us. We saw this most recently with the bear baiting referendum, which was heavily financed by the Humane Society of the United States and other national animal rights groups. The opposition to the referendum, however, was widespread and bipartisan, with every major candidate for governor voicing their opposition.

A bear baiting opponent stands with signs outside the Portland Expo on Election Day in 2014.  Troy R. Bennett | BDN

A bear baiting opponent stands with signs outside the Portland Expo on Election Day in 2014. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

There’s a fairly simple formula for a group trying to use Maine’s citizen initiative process to advance its cause.

First, create a locally based group as the face of the efforts. Second, recruit some local supporters and, perhaps, create other groups to be part of the local “coalition.” All of this creates the appearance of a grassroots campaign. In reality, it’s astroturfing, usually heavily financed by well heeled, out-of-state donors.

The bear-baiting referendum failed, but that doesn’t mean these tactics will go away any time soon, deemed ineffective. We’re already seeing them return with the referendum to impose universal background checks on firearm sales. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his network of organizations are the main backers of this initiative, which they’ve brought here despite Maine’s low crime rate and bipartisan support for gun rights.

There’s not much that can be done legislatively to address these kinds of campaigns, but some steps can be taken. One would be to impose a geographic distribution requirement on signatures, so that a minimum percentage has to come from each congressional district. This would prevent national groups from simply sending their paid signature gatherers to densely populated southern Maine. Maine attempted to pass such a requirement recently, but that bill ultimately failed. However, it received support from both sides of the aisle, so legislators should certainly take it up again next session.

Ultimately, though, there is no way to block national groups from coming in to our state and undermining our citizen initiative process. The only real way to do that would be to eliminate the citizen initiative altogether, and that should not be considered. Flawed though it may be, the process is a vital way for Mainers to directly engage in lawmaking, and voters should continue to be trusted to decide these issues.

However, as you consider whether to vote for a ballot issue, keep in mind who is sponsoring that particular initiative and why they are supporting it. Does the proposal actually solve a serious problem in our state, or is it merely an effort to notch another win on a national scoreboard?

It’s up to all of us to make sure that the citizen initiative process is used as it was intended, not abused by special interest groups out for a quick headline.

Jim Fossel

About Jim Fossel

Originally from Alna, Jim Fossel has volunteered with a number of campaigns over the years, including for Peter Mills for Governor in 2006. He previously worked for U.S. Senator Susan Collins and House Republican Leader Josh Tardy.