On Election Day, more than 65,000 Mainers signed petitions to expand access to health care.
The coalition of groups that collected the signatures, led by Maine Equal Justice Partners, fielded an army of volunteers to collect enough signatures to place the question on the ballot either in 2017 or in 2018.
The reason is clear. Five times, Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature voted to accept federal dollars as part of the Affordable Care Act to expand MaineCare, a move that would provide health insurance to about 70,000 low-income Mainers.
Each time, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bills and Republicans in the Legislature sustained the vetoes.
After a crowded ballot this year — there were six initiatives if you include a transportation bond — there have been calls in the Legislature, by the governor and from some interest groups to change the initiative process.
Overwhelmingly, the goal is to make it harder to place a question on the ballot. Such efforts should be rejected.
Efforts to place geographic restrictions on where signatures can be collected amount to favoritism of one type of voter over another. It’s wrongheaded.
A 22-year-old barista in Portland might not have much in common with a retired millworker in Lincoln, but in a democracy their votes — and their signatures — should have equal weight.
Other hurdles, like raising the threshold for the number of signatures, won’t prevent well-funded advocates from being successful. Instead, it’ll just make it harder for grassroots movements without big backers to get on the ballot.
LePage’s reason for supporting a harder process to place a question on the ballot is clear. He was blistered by the passage of four ballot questions that he opposed — and that went counter to his policy preferences. While he’s twice been able to be elected with less than a statewide majority, his policy positions cannot stand up to voter scrutiny.
In one election, voters rejected his economic policies by raising taxes on the wealthiest Mainers and increasing the minimum wage from its current unlivable $7.50 an hour.
They rejected his ill-informed and fictional pleas to reject the legalization of marijuana, which were based on inaccurate information and stereotypes.
And, in fact, voters even rejected an electoral system that had allowed him to become governor in the first place, choosing instead ranked-choice voting, which supporters say will guarantee majority support for the next governor.
Finally, adding the last insult to the list of injuries, voters made clear with their signatures that the governor’s willingness to let people suffer without health care is wrong.
As we have seen, there have been numerous failed efforts to place other issues on the ballot, including energy policy, Republican efforts to deconstruct the tax system and a new casino in southern Maine.
Now, collecting the signatures and winning at the ballot box aren’t the same thing, and there is real uncertainty about the future of the Affordable Care Act and the provisions that provide funding for MaineCare expansion. But by virtue of their signatures and the stories of people who signed, it’s clear Mainers know what they want.
“It was striking that a large number of signers spontaneously shared emotional accounts of the stress they and/or their loved ones experienced when they were unable to access affordable health care,” said Dr. Barbara Covey, who volunteered to collect signatures on Election Day.
With a new Trump administration in Washington and a LePage administration bent on gridlock and partisan war in Augusta, ballot initiatives remain a way for voters to take matters into their own hands and to overrule the politicians.
The system isn’t perfect. The argument that the ballot box isn’t the best place to judge complicated matters of public policy resonates with me.
But faced with a lack of progress, with a government that’s controlled by people who have the stated desire to unwind important policies and to block movement forward, the ballot is the last refuge for positive change.
Without it, it’s fair to say low-wage workers wouldn’t be getting a raise next month, and it’s unlikely that lawmakers would have been able to build consensus on taxes, voting procedures or marijuana.
And, without the fast-paced and successful collection of signatures supporting access to health care, lawmakers might not have been motivated to take up the cause again. With a statewide campaign pending, they have every reason to try once again to carry out the will of the people.
Ballot campaigns are messy and they’re expensive. But they remain a powerful tool for voters to take the lead when politics — or the governor — stand in the way.