Maine voters will decide a record five different citizen-initiated ballot questions when they go to the polls in November. The spike follows a national trend of politically active interest groups taking their causes directly to voters after they fail to get results in their legislatures.
When Gov. Paul LePage won a second term two years ago, Ben Chin, political director for the Maine People’s Alliance, knew that his political strategy would have to change.
“After the election we knew we were going to have at least four more years of divided government. To do anything big, we were probably going to have to go the ballot,” he says.
The MPA is just one of several progressive organizations that re-evaluated its plans after the 2014 election. LePage had won despite expensive and vigorous opposition campaigns by the groups. Also, Republicans made significant gains in the state Legislature, taking back control of the Senate.
So groups like the MPA had two choices: Fight a noisy but likely futile battle in the divided Legislature or, Chin says, use the state’s 106-year-old citizen initiative process to take the case directly to voters.
It became an easy decision.
“Very quickly it came back from them that raising the minimum wage was the top priority for what they felt would be the biggest, most transformative thing that we could do,” Chin says.
Other groups have followed suit. A group backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg is campaigning to enhance background checks on gun sales. The Maine Education Association is pushing a ballot question to increase education funding with a surcharge on families earning more than $200,000 a year. Another group wants to overhaul how elections are decided. And yet another organization wants to legalize marijuana.
There could have been more.
“This year we processed six initiatives, five of which qualified for the ballot for November. So five is our high water mark for a citizen initiative,” says Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.
Dunlap says there have been two other years when Maine voters have decided four ballot questions in a single election. But usually, it’s only one or two. And the spike in Maine comes after a 2014 election in which the number of ballot initiatives nationally was the lowest in 26 years.
Those numbers are climbing this year, in part because voter turnout was so low in 2014 that it made it easier for activists to qualify their measures for the ballot this year. But Maine saw very high turnout in 2014, and so was one of just three states where the bar was actually raised.
So what’s going on?
“Well, you know, you might sort of have the perfect storm going on in Maine,” says Jennie Bowser, a former senior fellow for the National Conference of State Legislatures, where she studied the history and use of ballot initiatives.
Bowser says an initiative is often a response to the actions, or inactions, of a state legislature. When a State House doesn’t line up with the perceived wishes of a state’s population, the citizen initiative is used to circumvent it.
Of course, there are some issues that lawmakers just don’t want to deal with, like gun control and marijuana legalization. And then there’s the fact that legislatures are increasingly resembling Congress — more partisan fights, more gridlock.
But it’s not always safe to assume that a ballot initiative represents some sort of popular revolt, Bowser says.
“People realized there was money to be made in the initiative process and now there’s this whole industry surrounding the initiative,” Bowser says.
The industry includes campaign consultants, signature gatherers, pollsters, spokespeople and advertising budgets. It all costs money and people who do the campaign work don’t do it cheaply.
In 2009, a single political action committee spent $4.5 million to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage law. In 2014, an out-of-state group seeking to ban bear hunting with traps and bait spent $2.5 million. And this year, a gambling impresario spent over $2.6 million just trying to get on this year’s ballot, and most of that money went just to pay petition circulators.
“This is a year where things are overall slightly more progressive than in years past, but not overwhelmingly,” says Craig Burnett, a political science professor at Hofstra University.
Burnett says this year’s ballot questions lean left in the states this year. Maine is one of at least three states, for example, where voters will be asked to increase the minimum wage. Two other states will consider stronger background checks and marijuana legalization.
If it seems like ballot questions are leaning left nationally, it could be because Republicans have seized control of state legislatures. Currently, Republicans control 60 percent of the country’s state legislatures, while Maine is among the 14 percent in which power is split. That’s a big swing from just seven years ago when Democrats controlled more than half of state houses.
Rick Bennett, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, says he’s not surprised that liberal interest groups have taken their cause to the voters. He says Republicans are ascendant in Maine and elsewhere, it’s easy to get on the ballot here and running a campaign in Maine is relatively cheap.
“If you can run a referendum effort for just $1 million or $2 million — which you know to a group like the Bloomberg organization isn’t a lot — then maybe they can get a toehold on an issue that they’d like to bring to other states in the future,” Bennett says.
Even in 2014, when the number of ballot questions was low, corporations, interest groups and wealthy individuals spent over $420 million nationwide on referendums, according to data collected by the Institute of Money in State Politics.
National partisan organizations have sprouted to help channel this flow of cash. One of them, the Center for Conservative Initiatives, is an offshoot of the organization that typically funds Republican legislative campaigns. In fact, some observers believe that ballot measures can be used to drive voter turnout in favor of a certain candidate or party.
“The danger you run is that it actually generates energy on your opponents’ side,” Dunlap says, cautioning against the idea that the ballot campaigns are essentially surrogates for political parties.
In some instances an issue that appears to align with a candidate could pose a problem. Dunlap cites two separate efforts several years ago to install a so-called taxpayer bill of rights. Both campaigns were run by conservative groups, spurred stiff opposition and were soundly defeated.
And so were Republican hopes to gain majorities in the Legislature.
Beyond the trends, the financial motives and the partisan maneuvering, the ballot process has a basic appeal to people like Chin.
“The more we can just get the public organized behind these very simple questions, that I think are common sense for most folks and will vastly improve people’s lives, the more change we can make, directly. And we have this tool in Maine, so why not use it?” says Chin.