The case for changing when Maine votes on ballot questions


When the legislature adjourns from session, all non-emergency legislation that was passed becomes effective 90 days thereafter. However, Article IV, Part Third, Section 17 of the Constitution of Maine gives voters the ability to veto legislation that was passed by the legislature but has not yet become law during the 90-day window.

In this process, petitioners are required to gather a number of signatures equivalent to 10 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. This time around, petitioners were required to collect no less than 63,067 signatures, or 10 percent of the 630,667 votes that were cast for a candidate in the 2018 gubernatorial election. In addition, petitioners are required to collect and bring all signatures to the Maine Secretary of State’s office by 5:00 p.m. on the 90th day after the legislature’s adjournment. For individuals and groups petitioning laws that were passed in the First Session of the 129th Legislatures, that date was September 18, 2019.

This means petitioners were required to collect an average of more than 700 signatures per day to reach the threshold. Some of those signatures are inevitably thrown out by town clerks during the verification process, which requires municipal officials to determine if a signatory of the petition is a registered voter in their municipality. That is why the three major active people’s veto campaigns aspired to collect 80,000 signatures before the deadline; petitioners truly needed to collect nearly 900 signatures per day to ensure they had a sizeable cushion to account for all of the signatures that could be thrown out during the verification process.

As of September 18, there was only one people’s veto effort that prevailed in obtaining the required number of signatures to obtain ballot access. This was the effort spearheaded by Veto 798, a group in favor of preserving religious and philosophical exemptions for vaccinations. The group submitted more than 78,000 signatures that had been verified by town clerks across the state. In total, they claimed to collect more than 93,000 signatures in the 90-day window.

Since the Constitution of Maine was changed in 1909 to include a people’s veto mechanism, only 31 initiatives have obtained enough valid signatures to achieve ballot status. Of those initiatives, 19 have prevailed in stopping the targeted legislation from becoming law.

If the Secretary of State determines the petitioners collected enough valid signatures to reach the 10 percent threshold, a proclamation will be issued by either the governor or the secretary of state to place the initiative on the next statewide or general election ballot. The question will state:

“Do you want to reject the new law that removes religious and philosophical exemptions to requiring immunization against certain communicable diseases for students to attend schools and colleges and for employees of nursery schools and health care facilities?”

The requirement to place the initiative on the next statewide election ballot has caused some controversy (especially among the individuals heading the people’s veto efforts) due to a recent change in Maine law. 

Earlier this year lawmakers passed LD 1626, now law, which allows political parties to hold presidential primaries on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March. The upcoming presidential primary election will be conducted on March 3, 2020. According to the secretary of state, these primaries will be considered statewide elections. Thus, all Mainers will have the opportunity to vote on the people’s veto effort to stop LD 798 from going into effect on March 3, 2020.

The decision to hold the people’s veto election in March has been controversial for several reasons. For one, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap told petitioners that these questions would appear on the ballot in June 2020 — an apparent oversight by his office. In addition, the sole purpose of the March election is to hold a primary for presidential candidates in political parties. Therefore, ideological minorities in each political party will likely have more incentive to vote in March than independent voters who are barred from voting in party primaries.

The March 2020 primary will likely attract more Democratic primary voters due to the fact that the party must secure a nominee to compete against President Donald Trump in 2020. President Trump doesn’t appear to have challengers with enough support to force a Republican presidential primary. Therefore, Republican voters will likely forgo voting in the March election, independents won’t have incentive to do so and Democrats will have the most at stake. Therefore, primarily Democratic primary voters will likely decide whether LD 798 becomes law. 

While this unintended consequence has the potential to hurt the the Veto 798 group in the short term, the issue at hand is really about the process itself, what is considered a statewide election and whether we should strive to put people’s vetoes and citizen’s initiatives on the ballot when most Mainers are voting.

Rep. Patrick Corey has indicated that he is working on a bill to exclude people’s vetoes and citizen’s initiatives from the presidential primary ballot in March, which would be a statutory change.

While this bill might solve the immediate problem if it is passed as an emergency measure in the upcoming Second Session, the change should really be made at the constitutional level. The Constitution of Maine specifies a people’s veto will go on the next statewide ballot, which could be in June or November if Rep. Corey’s bill passes both chambers and is signed by the governor.

Nonetheless, the June ballot isn’t always ideal for these initiatives either. According to Title 21-A, Section 339, gubernatorial and senatorial primaries normally occur on the second Tuesday in June. If a people’s veto is held in June, the same scenario could happen — one major party could decide whether the initiative or people’s veto deserves to pass, whereas the other party and independents would not have as much incentive to get out the vote. Therefore, a more substantial change would need to occur to ensure the highest volume of Maine voters are turning out to vote and decide these important issues.

In order to accomplish this change, the legislature, and subsequently the voters, would need to amend the Maine Constitution to hold people’s veto and citizen’s initiative questions in general elections that are held on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. This would ensure the most voters are deciding whether a referendum passes or fails at the ballot box, though may require additional statutory adjustments as it relates to the timing of the certification of petitions with the Secretary of State.

November general elections almost always have higher turnouts than June elections in Maine. There were more than 645,000 ballots cast for referendums in November 2018 whereas less than 282,000 were cast in the June 2018 people’s veto election. In other words, more than double the amount of voters typically cast a ballot in November than in June. This begs the question: Do races that are decided by a small percentage of voters in primary elections truly represent “the will of the people?”

In sum, lawmakers should consider changing the Maine Constitution to allow people’s vetoes and citizen’s initiatives to be voted on strictly in November general elections. Maximizing voter participation on referendum questions and removing partisanship in the timing of these votes is not only the right thing to do, but is also good governance.