Let’s make sure Maine’s citizen initiatives really come from Maine citizens

State House Augusta Maine 3_JPGIt’s called the citizen’s initiative because it is supposed to come from the citizens, not national well-funded or even state well-funded groups who buy their way onto our ballot.

Over the years we’ve tried to take the money out of the process, including making it illegal to pay people to gather signatures. The Maine Supreme Court overturned that law in 1988. So we were back at the legislature yesterday, with a new attempt to improve the integrity of the process.

Dave Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, led the way in support of a bill he drafted that was sponsored by Representative Stan Short. Dave presented the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee with excellent testimony, including a lot of specifics about the most recent bear initiative by the Humane Society of the United States.

“In the case of the recently defeated bear referendum,” said Dave, “The Humane Society of the United States hired a California company called PCI Consulting, a longtime partner in such initiatives, to recruit non-residents to come to Maine and collect signatures. They paid their travel and meal expenses and paid these nonresidents for signatures collected. Maine Ethics Commission reports reveal they paid PCI Consulting $178,574 of the total $228,574 spent by HSUS to collect signatures.”

The SAM bill includes a number of new steps petition gatherers would have to take, including posting a $2000 bond for each circulator receiving over $2500 in compensation. The bill would also require circulators to register with the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices and to disclose to the commission information regarding the person’s place of residence, employment history, compensation, number of signatures gathered in a month and petitions circulated and to wear an identification bade when collecting signatures.

The ID badge requirement has been enacted and overturned in other states, including Colorado, which had its badge requirement struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999. In that case the court ruled that the restrictions violated petition gatherers’ right to speak anonymously.

The National Rifle Association is working on language that Maine could use to achieve SAM’s goal, and that language is likely to be introduced at the committee’s first work session on the bill (not yet scheduled).

My Testimony

I am a strong advocate for the citizen initiative process. It’s a very important opportunity for Mainers to bring issues important to them to a statewide vote, and we should not make the process so onerous and difficult that the opportunity is substantially diminished.

I’ve worked on many citizens initiatives, beginning in 1983 with the moose hunting referendum. My sister Edie and  collected the signatures for the Sunday sales initiative that allowed larger stores to be open on Sundays. I managed the campaign that put the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in the Constitution and protected its referendum. And in 2004 I raised the money and Edie managed the campaign that successfully defended bear hunting and trapping.

I do think there are some changes we could make that protect the initiative opportunity while also protecting the integrity of the process. I suggested two specific new requirements:

  • Require a percentage of signatures to come from every county. This will force petitioners to build support statewide, and strengthen the voice and participation of people who live in rural Maine. It will also assure that an initiative has sufficient support and interest throughout the state to justify being placed on the statewide ballot.
  • Require circulators to read the Secretary of State’s explanation of the issue to each person who is considering signing the petition, before that person signs the petition. Essentially, the voter would then be acknowledging that he or she heard, understands, and supports the initiative. I believe there is a great deal of abuse in the way the petition circulators explain initiatives to people.


Both HSUS and the Maine Civil Liberties Union testified against SAM’s bill. Katie Hansberry, HSUS’s Maine State Director, testified that the changes called for in the bill, “would limit democracy and disenfranchise voters by placing undue restrictions on the citizen initiative process.”

“Lawmakers must trust and have faith in the ability of registered voters of Maine to properly assess petitions put before them, to decide whether or not they sign the petitions, and to ultimately decide how they want to vote on the issues,” said Katie.

Deputy Secretary of State Julie Flynn said the current proposal was most likely unconstitutional but that the committee might be able to define the duties of a signature gatherer in a way that would ensure that Mainers are actually doing the work.

Another Bear Referendum

Ironically, not long after returning home from the State House yesterday, I received a message from the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance that HSUS, “announced plans to bring yet another ballot issue on bear hunting back to Maine.”

“On Tuesday, Feb. 24, lawyers for HSUS and the state of Maine were in court to debate the lawsuit brought by HSUS against the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife” reported USSA. “That suit sought to stop the state’s wildlife experts from explaining to voters the true dangers of HSUS’s bear hunting ban. Despite an overwhelming decision by Maine Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler that sided with the state’s right to provide comments, HSUS continues to pursue a legal challenge.

“As part of the discussions about the pending litigation, an attorney for HSUS, Rachel Wertheimer, advised the court that they will again put the question on the 2016 ballot, and will be filing the initial paperwork soon.”
Perhaps this will give the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee even more reason to act now to make sure our citizen initiative process is conducted with integrity, by and for Maine citizens.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.