Maine politicians consider new ways to block direct democracy

About 59,000 working Mainers got a raise this week when the minimum wage increased from $9 an hour to $10 an hour.

For someone working 40 hours a week, the dollar will increase pay by about $2,000 a year before payroll taxes. The yearly wage for a full-time worker making the new minimum was is just more than $20,000.

For many families struggling with low wages, the increase is a big deal that can help them put oil in the tank during the winter to keep their home a little warmer, pay for a needed car repair or afford their medicine.

Raising the minimum wage is good for families and good for the economy. The policy will make lives better in our state for people who work hard but don’t earn very much money.

The increase, however, wouldn’t have happened without a dedicated corps of advocates and volunteers, strong support from voters and Maine’s ballot initiative process.

An ideological stalemate in Augusta has frozen the minimum wage for years. Powerful special interests and Gov. Paul LePage successfully blocked even a modest increase, forcing Mainers to take matters into their own hands.

They collected the signatures and placed a minimum wage increase on the ballot. Voters said “yes” in 2016.

Last year, the wage rose from $7.50 an hour to $9 an hour. On Jan. 1, it went up to $10 an hour. The wage will continue to increase until it reaches $12 an hour in 2020.

There’s a sentiment in Augusta among some in the political class that it’s too easy to collect the signatures necessary to place a question on the ballot. In 2016, there were five citizen initiatives. There were two more last year, including the overwhelmingly popular effort to expand Medicaid to more than 70,000 Mainers.

It’s not.

Qualifying for the ballot in Maine is hard and expensive. Collecting the more than 61,000 valid signatures necessary is a logistical challenge and a hurdle for even the most organized and best funded campaigns.

Yet again, legislators have tried to enact new barriers to the ballot box.

This year, they are considering a proposal to ban signature collection at polling stations during elections.

Collecting signatures on Election Day is the most efficient way to get them. There is simply no other event that brings together so many registered voters from the same town in the same place at the same time.

Pushing signature gatherers out of polling places would put those voters out of reach in most locations, and make it significantly harder for citizen initiatives and people’s vetoes to qualify for the ballot.

“This measure, if it passes, will certainly have the effect of making it harder for citizen initiatives to qualify for the ballot,” said Anna Kellar, the executive director of the Maine League of Women Voters and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. “It will also have the perverse effect of ensuring that the only measures that can succeed are those that are well-financed from the beginning. … Volunteer-driven efforts like the Clean Election initiative will have a near-impossible task to gather the signatures to qualify.”

Proponents of the change say the intent is to reduce the burden on clerks and election workers and to protect voters from aggressive signature gatherers.

Maine’s elections are well-run and our town and city clerks are some of the most prepared and professional public servants in the state. They run tight ships and have demonstrated that they can maintain order at polling places and protect the election process.

And voters have shown with their signatures that they don’t mind the current process. Just this year, tens of thousands of Mainers signed petitions on Election Day for a people’s veto that would restore ranked-choice voting (another law that was enacted directly by voters).

With a belligerent governor incapable of governing and a closely divided Legislature, it’s no wonder that Maine government is bogged down in gridlock.

And with the majority of Republican legislative leaders running for governor, this year could be even worse as they race to see who can be the most unreasonable and uncompromising.

But we can’t expect that voters will simply accept the status quo of inaction and let big questions go unanswered.

Mainers working for minimum wage needed a raise. Voters made it happen.

K-12 education needed a boost. Voters spurred action, even if lawmakers undermined the initiative.

People were tired of an election system that they felt stacked the deck against working people. Voters supported a system they liked better.

Frustrated with a health care system that leaves too many people behind, voters demanded a change and expanded Medicaid to more than 70,000 people.

From allowing loving same-sex couples to marry to rejecting attacks on voting rights, Mainers have stood as the last check on a state government unable to solve problems.

Lawmakers may want to reserve that power for themselves. But voters have made it clear that they believe in direct democracy. It would be unwise and an affront to those voters to make the path to the ballot more difficult.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.