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Legislature, instead of voters, may decide to ban foreign influence in Maine referendums

Voters wait for the doors to open at 6 a.m. to cast their ballots at the fire station on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in New Gloucester, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Voters wait for the doors to open at 6 a.m. to cast their ballots at the fire station on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in New Gloucester, Maine.

Supporters of a ballot initiative barring foreign governments from influencing Maine referendum campaigns are pushing the Legislature to enact the measure instead of sending it to voters in November.

The Legislature hasn't enacted a ballot initiative in more than 16 years, but the group Protect Maine Elections is hoping lawmakers will break that streak and join the seven other states that prohibit electioneering by groups owned and controlled by foreign governments in some fashion.

Republican state Sen. Rick Bennett, of Oxford, is leading that effort and he's also chairman of Protect Maine Elections, the group that will spearhead the referendum campaign should state lawmakers decline to ratify the ballot initiative.

And deferring to voters is usually the legislature's default position. It's punted on 20 straight ballot initiatives since 2007.

But Bennett believes broad and bipartisan public support for blocking foreign governments from electioneering could be persuasive.

"This more than a public opinion. This is sort of a core value to people, and we think given that, the legislature should lead and the organizers of the Protect Maine Elections effort really believe that we should pass it," he says.

Should lawmakers ratify the initiative this session, the issue of prohibiting foreign governments from electioneering in Maine referendums will come full circle.

After all, it was Bennett and other state lawmakers who sought to enact a similar ban two years ago, only to have the proposal vetoed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills — a move that led supporters to launch the ballot initiative.

"But it did get very strong support among people who were in leadership then and who are in leadership now," Bennett says.

Democratic legislative leaders, Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, both have signed onto a companion bill that clarifies that any ballot initiatives enacted by the legislature this year won't go into effect until next year — a proposal Bennett says is tailored specifically for the possible passage of the foreign electioneering ban.

And Jackson and Talbot Ross also support the foreign government electioneering ban — but they differ on whether it should be ratified by the Legislature instead of sending it to voters.

In a statement, Talbot Ross said she supports passing the ballot initiative this session.

"Maine has always been a leader when it comes to keeping big money out of politics and passing this legislation will allow us to continue that tradition," Talbot Ross said. "This bipartisan, common sense bill will limit foreign interference on our elections and institute critical accountability measures. Now is the time to take action and listen to Maine people who strongly support these safeguards to our electoral process."

President Jackson, who voted for the first iteration of the foreign government electioneering ban, says he'll push for a public hearing on the initiative, but he says ultimately he supports sending it to voters this November.

"My vote is always going to be for the referendum process, and like I said, I've been real consistent on that," he says. "I've been consistent on that on bills I didn't like. This one I do like. But I just think we have to protect the referendum process and I think we're doing that in this case, too."

Jackson added that he won't pressure his caucus to align with his view.

But even if the initiative does clears the legislature, it's not certain that Gov. Mills has changed her opposition to banning electioneering by companies controlled by foreign governments.

According to a statement from the her press office, the governor has not yet reviewed the ballot initiative, but that she plans to weigh in when lawmakers take it up later this session.

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