Maine’s ballot initiative process serves outside interests, not Maine people
Today the Maine Heritage Policy Center released its newest report, “The Will of the People?: How Maine’s ballot initiative process is tainted by outside influence,” which provides the most accurate numbers to date regarding the funding behind each ballot initiative considered by Maine voters between 2009 and 2017.
In recent years, Maine’s ballot initiative process has risen to the forefront of policy debate in Augusta. In 2016, Maine voters approved four initiatives at the ballot box, all of which have been modified or repealed in some fashion by the Legislature. Often during these debates, we’ve heard the phrase “the will of the people,” which is used as an appeal to prevent lawmakers from altering initiatives that pass at the ballot box, even when obvious flaws exist within the statutes.
Typically, this phrase is used only to protect an initiative after a favorable electoral outcome is achieved, but rarely do we question how or why these measures appeared on our ballot in the first place.
With this report, MHPC has quantified exactly whose will is exerted at Maine’s ballot box, and the answer is not real Maine people.
Between 2009 and 2017, more than $81 million was contributed to PACs and ballot question committees that supported or opposed ballot initiatives in Maine. Among that total, 71 percent of all funds originated from out-of-state sources. Only 23 percent of funds, or $19 of the total $81 million, was contributed by Maine people. The highest volume of out-of-state contributions came from Washington D.C., New York, and California.
Groups that supported ballot initiatives significantly out-fundraised opposing groups, which is noteworthy considering that ballot initiatives and veto referendums must be crafted so that a ‘yes’ vote signifies support of the measure, and so the groups that bring these issues to ballot are always considered the supporters of an initiative.
Supporting committees accepted a far greater share of funds from out-of-state contributors than groups that opposed ballot initiatives. Supporting groups raised $62 of the $81 million in contributions and enjoyed a 3-to-1 advantage in fundraising that reflects a difference of $42 million in total contributions. 76 percent of funding among supporting groups originated from outside of Maine while only 18 percent came from in-state contributors.
By comparison, opposing groups received 40 percent of their funding from Maine people, and while they received a smaller share of out-of-state funding, these contributions still represented more than half of all funds raised by opposing groups.
These findings show that regardless of position, groups that participate in our ballot initiative process receive a majority of their funding from out-of-state interests, and that supporting groups rely on these out-of-state contributions to make their case to Maine voters.
What’s also important to note is that between 2009 and 2017, more than two-fifths of all ballot initiatives considered by Maine voters faced no formalized opposition but recorded contributions to committees supporting the measure.
Of the 50 ballot questions, including bonds questions, considered by Maine people over this period, in only eight instances did the prevailing side of a ballot initiative raise less funds than the other side.
This brings into question whether the outcomes at our ballot box represent the will of Maine people or the will of special interest groups with the deepest pockets.
On average over the period, 61 percent of funds came from away, but the influence of outside groups has grown more powerful in recent years. In the 2016 and 2017 election cycles, out-of-state contributions accounted for 80 and 87 percent of all funds raised.
To be clear, our state’s ballot initiative system is intended to serve Maine citizens when lawmakers fail to adequately represent voters, typically by refusing to act on policies that an overwhelming majority of them support.
When an initiative appears on the ballot that has never been introduced in the Maine Legislature, you can be sure our state’s ballot initiative process is being exploited by out-of-state groups pushing a specific agenda.
Unfortunately, as highlighted in the report, Maine imposes incredibly lax requirements on petitioning groups to achieve ballot status, and we do not employ many ballot restrictions that are practiced in other states, including subject restrictions, signature distribution requirements, and supermajority vote provisions.
This makes it much easier for outside groups to fund signature collection efforts and push far-reaching legislation that has proven over the last two years to have several unintended consequences.
Regardless of how anyone feels about past or future ballot initiatives, what Maine is experiencing at the ballot box does not represent the original intent of our system. Maine’s initiative and referendum process was established to serve real Mainers, not outside interests.
If the outcomes of our referendum elections truly represented the will of Maine people, outside groups would not have staked such a prominent financial interest in our ballot initiative process.