It was a sunny day in Colonial Williamsburg, one of my favorite places, not only because it was warmer in Virginia than Maine that late spring afternoon, but also because it’s a place where history comes alive. I was in line with other visitors to be selected as jurors in a mock trial. We were chosen on the basis of color, gender and status as determined by property. It was quite a surprise to us twenty-first century tourists that that’s how it was in eighteenth century America. During the early days of the republic, the right to sit on a jury meant you were qualified to vote, and that honor was confined to the privileged few. In most states, only white males who were landowners and members of an established Protestant church – specifically Anglican in Virginia and what became Congregationalist in New England – had the power of the ballot. Everyone else was excluded from having a direct role in the decisions made by their own government.
Over time, and largely because of the industrial revolution and the Civil War, barriers against voting have been challenged and removed, replacing exclusion with inclusion, though efforts to achieve that equality have never been easy or immediate. People of color, for instance, in southern states were denied the vote through barriers like literacy tests and poll taxes. After long years of struggle and protest, women were not allowed to vote until the passage of the 19th amendment to the United States constitution in 1920.
The trend in the country in terms of empowering its citizens has been a forward one, but bills recently heard by the legislature in Augusta would have us return to the restrictive policies of the past when a few spoke for many, effectively excluding rather than including citizens from having a voice in the decisions that all should make.
For more than a hundred years, Mainers have enjoyed the constitutional right to create and support a citizens’ initiative to remedy legislative inaction or obstruction by gathering signatures and then casting a vote. It’s democracy in its most direct form; without it, the citizens of our state have no recourse if special interests prevent the voice of all the people from being heard. Any bill that would take away that vital alternative would be a giant step backward into the past.
A case in point is LD 742 which proposes to change the Constitution of Maine to require that at least 5% of the number of signatures required on a petition to directly initiate legislation be of electors registered to vote in each of the two congressional districts. In other words unless 5% of the signatures needed to place a citizens initiative on the ballot comes from both Districts, the measure fails. Result? Majority rule – the hallmark of democracy everywhere – is replaced by minority control, effectively disenfranchising citizens in the more heavily populated and smaller First District where the 5% requirement might well be met if it fails in the less densely populated and larger, more rural Second District. Of course, it also disenfranchises everyone else too, since the issue -whatever it happens to be – never gets on the ballot. That, in fact, is the intent of the bill -to make it more difficult to gather signatures and thereby discourage citizen-initiated legislation altogether.
Incredibly, The House recently gave preliminary approval to the bill, 99-47, and the Senate voted 32-3. Additional votes are required before the proposal is sent to Gov. Paul Le Page, although the two-thirds margin needed for enactment appears probable in both House and the Senate. The bill would then require approval by a simple majority of voters to amend the Maine Constitution.
The bill applies to all citizen initiatives, but, of course, the real target is the possibility of another bear referendum which explains why LD 742 was supported by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and sponsored by Senators Saviello, Collins and Langley, all of whom are highly rated by that organization and were endorsed for re-election. SAM would like us to believe that the attempt to end cruelty to bears was advanced only by out –of- state interests, neglecting, as always, to mention the out-of-state interests that opposed it. SAM and its allies are not content with controlling the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, blocking any measure that they feel goes against their own vested interests. Now they’ve resorted to voter suppression, a tactic repeatedly tried during the current legislative session.
The amazing thing is not that citizens of Maine can understandably grow weary of the campaigning and the rhetoric that mark the launching of any citizens’ initiative. What’s really baffling is their tolerance of duplicity in place of fairness, and their seemingly endless acceptance of collusion and cronyism in their own legislature.
Neither has any place in a democratic society. The right to vote in this country has been steadily won over time by sacrifice and endurance. It should not be abridged because what has been dearly won can easily be lost.