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Proposal To Bar Petitions From Polling Places Could Hobble Maine Ballot Campaigns

Tom Porter
Maine Public File
A worker gathers signatures for a petition in June 2015.

At first glance, a new bill from Maine’s secretary of state contains mostly a list of minor housekeeping changes to state election laws. But tucked inside is a big change that could make it much harder for groups pushing citizen initiatives onto the state ballot.

The proposal comes at a time when both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature are eyeing ways to curb an explosion in ballot initiatives.

Getting a citizen-initiated question on a ballot requires the signatures of over 61,000 registered Maine voters. The easiest way to collect those signatures is on Election Day, right at polling places. That’s why it’s common for voters to cast their ballot and then encounter campaign workers asking them to sign petitions, which can propose anything from raising the minimum wage and legalizing recreational marijuana to changing Maine tax law.

“This is a tradition that has been how Maine democracy has worked for decades,” says Anna Kellar, the director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections and the League of Women Voters of Maine.

Kellar says a provision in the secretary of state’s bill would eliminate that easy access to voters. It bans the collection of signatures for ballot initiatives inside polling places and moves it outside — way outside — to at least 51 feet from the entrance of a polling place and from the pathway between the parking lot and the entrance to the building.

It’s a significant change — one that Kellar says eliminates a key tool for ballot campaigns to obtain the signatures they need to propose laws to voters.

“So without the ability to do that it would make it much harder for more citizen initiatives to get on the ballot, and it would give an advantage to groups that have a lot of money at the beginning, so groups that are funded usually from big donors out of state,” she says.

Kellar says the proposal would tilt the playing field to favor campaigns that pay petition circulators a lot of money for each signature they collect. That’s because well-funded campaigns may be able to withstand the polling place ban by simply paying more per signature over a longer period of time, while a volunteer-based campaign may not have the cash or the manpower.

Kellar also notes that the proposal comes at time when lawmakers are increasingly frustrated with citizen-approved laws, but have so far been unable to pass any restrictions.

“We’ve seen more and more efforts to try different angles to make it harder for groups to get on the ballot. And this is probably the most extreme of those,” she says.

“No, this is not really designed to address those concerns at all. This is not coming from the legislators,” says Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.

Dunlap insists that his proposal is not an attempt to appease lawmakers in both parties who have so far been unable to curb use of ballot initiatives. He says it’s designed to address concerns municipal election officials, and the public, have raised about an uptick in petition activity in and near polling places.

“It’s from voters. You know, voters have complained for years about running the gauntlet in the polling place. And depending on how zealous people are about gathering signatures it makes a lot of extra work for the wardens trying to police things and keep things orderly in the polling place,” he said.

Dunlap says the complaints have been spurred by signature collections, campaigning by candidates, exit polling by news organizations and groups opposing ballot initiatives — all of which would be banned from within the proposed 50-foot buffer area.

“I would agree that this is a major change, but it’s one that’s worth discussing because we do get a lot of complaints from voters about running the gauntlet in the polling station,” he says.

Dunlap’s office has supported such changes in the past, but none have passed the Legislature. And given the anticipated pushback from interest groups that see the initiative process as a critical tool, he isn’t overly confident that this one will become law, either.

Ranked Choice Voting Maine, the group that successfully convinced voters to approve an overhaul of its election system in 2016, says the proposal is another attack on Maine’s direct democracy law.

In the fall, the Legislature voted to delay implementation of the overhaul because the Maine Supreme Judicial Court says part of the voter-approved law is unconstitutional. The group is now attempting gather signatures to overturn the Legislature’s decision.

“This year, our Legislature has overthrown the results of a free and fair election by blocking all four of the November 2016 citizen-approved referenda,” the group said in a statement. “Now with this latest bill, they are trying to stop the people from exercising our right to petition our government by blocking our access to the polls.

“The only bright spot is our constitutionally protected right to the People’s Veto. Right now, in subzero temperatures, thousands of Maine people are working together to gather the 61,123 signatures to stop the legislature’s undemocratic actions.”

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing on the proposal on Wednesday.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.