As Maine looks ahead to its upcoming election on November 7th, eyes are focused once again on the role of our citizen referendums in the state’s political and legislative process.
Most who supported the 2016 ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, create sustainable funding for our public schools, legalize recreational marijuana, or to implement ranked-choice voting will likely recall their elation when these measures all passed in a state election that saw near-record turnout, only to feel that elation turn to frustration when each of these measures saw substantial revision, delay, or destruction at the hands of the Governor’s office and factions within the Legislature.
Despite the 2016 ballot measures shaping the political discourse and the goalposts of the recent state budget fight to the benefit of progressive values, many engaged citizens felt a tangible sense of betrayal when our elected representatives put their thumbs on the scale on our process of direct democracy. Up to this point, most had assumed that the norms restraining legislators from so obviously betraying the expressed will of the voters would be too immense, and for many, the realization that this norm has eroded was truly deflating. With more citizen referendums on the ballot this year, including measures to expand Medicaid to uninsured Mainers on the edges of poverty, many supporters are approaching the referendum process more skeptically.
Perhaps recognizing that this skepticism breeds the kind of mistrust of government and politics that turns people away from the political process entirely, Saco state senator and fellow Young Democrat Justin Chenette has introduced an amendment to the state constitution that would protect citizen referendums passed by voters from repeal or alteration at the hands of the Legislature for a year, creating constitutional protection for citizen democracy where norms have failed.
In many ways the amendment is a recognition that while Mainers live in a representative republic—that is, we elect representatives to pass laws and operate government on our behalf—the sanctity and practice of direct democracy in Maine predates our constitution, our statehood, and the United States itself. Mainers have been engaging in direct democracy in an unbroken chain since the 1600s with the birth of the practice of the town meeting, and take seriously the responsibility of participatory democracy (one of the reasons our election turnout is consistently in the top three in the nation).
Just as congressional gridlock has forced many political questions upon the individual states, failure to act at the state level has forced life or death issues like access to healthcare or a livable wage into the hands of citizens at the grassroots level. While Sen. Chenette’s amendment must survive both chambers of the Legislature before it ever gets into the hands of the voters, it represents an opportunity for the Legislature to begin to rebuild trust between itself and Maine citizens.
It’s an opportunity that legislators should not take for granted.
Sen. Chenette official photo.