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Marijuana Legalization Secures Top Spot on November Ballot

A proposal to tax, regulate and allow adult recreation use of marijuana landed the top spot on a November ballot crowded with a record five citizen initiatives.

The outcome follows a quirky tradition in Maine’s 106-year-old referendum law: a random drawing to determine the order of the questions. Advocates of the ballot measures were watching closely.

Secretary of State Matt Dunlap is handed a basket containing five ballot questions rolled and sealed with tape on Monday. He’s at the Maine State Archives Monday for a random drawing that will determine which of the five questions will appear as Question 1 on the November ballot.

It’s a coveted designation, even though it’s not entirely settled whether that the top position really matters.

“Welcome everybody to the ballot drawing. We expected a huge crowd, so that’s why we held it here rather than in our office,” Dunlap says.

It’s not hard to detect Dunlap’s sarcasm. This isn’t exactly the NBA draft. There is no lengthy explanation of the rules by executives in pressed suits. There are no ping-pong balls to determine a team’s drafting order. But the drawing does matter to the campaigns.

There are five ballot citizen initiatives this year, a record for Maine. Campaigns to legalize marijuana, raise the minimum wage, increase education funding, enhance background checks on gun sales and overhaul the state’s voting system will all compete for media attention and air time. They’ll also compete for voter attention from now until Election Day.

So the campaigns are wary of something called ballot fatigue, a theory that voters get worn out if presented with too many questions at the polls. Instead of carefully considering a proposal, they might just give up and vote no, opting for the status quo.

And for ballot campaigns proposing some big changes to Maine laws, the status quo is the enemy.

“I don’t think ballot placement really has a factor in this election,” Dunlap says. “I think it’s really going to depend on the respective campaigns, on how they do educating voters. And they have a lot to work on. These are complicated issues, every one of them.”

Dunlap isn’t much of a believer in ballot fatigue, at least in terms of citizen initiatives. But the theory has its followers.

Fears that voters will give up if confronted with too many questions has led some states like Mississippi and Arkansas to limit the number of ballot questions that can appear in any given election year. In 2012, allies of California Gov. Jerry Brown were so convinced that landing the top spot on the ballot would benefit the governor’s tax raising initiative that they convinced the state’s Legislature to amend the election law to make it appear first.

But studies on the effect of ballot question ordering are inconclusive. A 2015 study by a professor at the University of California found little evidence that the order of ballot questions affects outcomes.

And so the drawing at the Maine State Archives was a relatively laid-back affair, even as Dunlap reaches into the basket to pull Question 1. He uses his jackknife to break the seal, and reads the question.

“Do you want to allow the possession and use of marijuana under state law by persons who are at least 21 years of age and allow the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing and sale of marijuana and marijuana products subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?” he says. “That is Question 1.”

There’s no applause or cheers. But David Boyer, the campaign manager for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, is visibly pleased. He says the top position on the ballot could help the campaign.

“Even if it was Question 5 we think it will still pass, but we’re happy, we’ll take the break,” he says.

Dunlap went on to read the rest of the question order.

  • Question 2 will ask voters if they want to approve a 3 percent tax on households earning over $200,000 to help pay for education funding.
  • Question 3 asks Mainers to enhance background checks on private gun sales.
  • Question 4 asks voters to increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020.
  • Question 5 asks voters to swap Maine’s current voting system, in which governors, members of congress and state lawmakers are elected by a plurality or majority vote, for a system that allows voters to rank their preferences.

Representatives for several of the campaigns downplayed their unlucky draw. Amy Halstead, the campaign manager for Mainers for Fair Wages, says the drawing mattered less than voters having a say on raising the minimum wage.
“I think the most important thing is that Mainers are finally going to have the chance to vote after many, many years of no legislative action,” she says.

And there’s another reason why Question 1 may not fare any better than Question 4 or 5. Dunlap says that ballots are now laid out in columns. That means Question 1 and Question 5 could appear at the top of the ballot, depending on space.