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Referenda Will Likely Attract Few Voters

Next month, voters in Maine will head to the polls to weigh in on four statewide ballot questions, including one that would allow a casino in York County, and another that would expand access to Medicaid. It’s expected that the casino campaign will generate millions of dollars from both supporters and opponents. But in this off-year election, with no candidates on the ballot, some observers believe that it’s the Medicaid question that will drive voter turnout on November 7.

Supporters of the casino initiative spent more than $4 million just to get the question on the ballot, and according to the first campaign finance report, another $1.5 million was spent mostly in September and primarily for TV ads. and opponents, including the operators of existing casinos in Oxford and Bangor, have deep pockets as well. But Jim Melcher, a political scientist at the University of Maine at Farmington, says all that money isn’t likely to generate much voter interest.

“I heard one estimate of 12%, but that is not unusual in an off-year election there is no race for Governor, no race for congress,” Melcher says.

Some communities which have high profile issues on the local ballot may see higher turnouts. University of New England Political Science Professor Brian Duff says that York County may see more people at the polls, because the casino would be sited there.

“You can get something analogous to when the bear hunting question was on the ballot a few years ago and you saw increased turnout in northern Maine,” says Duff.

But observers agree that neither the casino question, nor the Medicaid question, will spark much interest statewide, as least as compared to some hot button issues of the recent past.

“Neither one of these raises to the level of the utilization of, the recreational use of marijuana in terms of the kind of the attention it is going to get or how sexy the issue is, neither one of these even comes close,” says Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political scientist.

More people turned out to decide the recreational marijuana issue than voted in the presidential contest last year. The pot question drew seven out of every ten eligible voters, while turnout next month could be less than one out of every six.

And the overall low turnout means that the campaigns will have to work harder to reach actual voters, and deliver a convincing message.

Ron Schmidt of the University of Southern Maine says social media campaigns can reach key voters, if done properly.

“The right kind of social media campaign could have a big effect on a part of the public that are minorities, but that if they mobilize, they can have an outsize impact when the majority of other voters stay home,” says Schmidt.

But UNE’S Duff says that traditional advertising and social media are not as effective in low turnout elections, and that its all about feet on the ground.

“Door-to-door work is the only way to turn out the vote and that cost a lot of money and you knock on a lot of doors and don’t get an answer,” Duff says.

And that is part of the reason why UMO’s Mark Brewer believes that question two — to expand Medicaid — will drive turnout next month. He says various advocacy groups, including the maine people’s alliance, are supporting the question, and have run door to door campaign efforts throughout the state for years.

“There will be some progressive groups who are already energized by opposition to President Trump and also to Governor LePage,” Brewer says. “I think the Medicaid will drive turnout to the extent that we have turnout.”

Voters statewide will also decide on a $105 million transportation bond, and on a proposed constitutional amendment to change the debt repayment schedule within state employee pension system.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.