Like many other states, Maine allows for citizen initiatives, the process by which individual citizens and nongovernmental organizations directly propose legislation. Also like many other states, Maine’s initiative process attracts more than its fair share of bizarre characters and proposals, including this referendum to end the fluoridation of Maine’s drinking water. Considering the most famous attempt to end the fluoridation of drinking water ended in a nuclear war, I suppose that the initiative process is a vast improvement.
However, the occasional strange referendum isn’t the only thing that makes Maine’s initiative process interesting. In addition to allowing conventional initiatives, Maine also gives its citizens a “People’s Veto”, through which the voters can veto laws passed by the state legislature. The right to a People’s Veto is enshrined in Article IV, Section 17 of Maine’s Constitution, which also outlines the process by which a veto can appear on the ballot.
To begin the process, a group of five registered voters must submit this written application to the Secretary of State. After the Secretary of State approves the application, the applicants are required to file a petition containing a number of signatures equal to 10% of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election (This year, People’s Veto applicants would need 55,087 signatures). If the applicants can get the requisite number of signatures, the legislation in question appears on the ballot to be ratified or rejected by the voters. In the past century, the People’s Veto has appeared on the ballot only 28 times and of those 28, the legislation has actually been vetoed only 16 times.
The People’s Veto became somewhat infamous in 2009, as it was used to overturn Maine’s same-sex marriage law. Legislation authorizing gay marriage was passed on May 6, 2009, but within three months, activists opposing gay marriage had accumulated over 100,000 signatures, forcing the legislation to face a People’s Veto. Legislation that is slated to appear on the ballot does not take effect until after the people have voted on it, so no gay marriages took place in Maine during the period in between the passage of the law and the November 3 vote on the legislation. The same sex marriage act was defeated by a significant margin, with almost 53% of voters choosing to repeal the law.
It is not hard to see why many states are reluctant to allow citizens to veto legislation. While the relatively commonplace citizen’s initiative process allows the people to circumvent the state legislature to propose legislation, the People’s Veto allows them to actively subvert the will of the legislature. No doubt the legislature went through great pains to pass the same sex marriage law, only to see all that effort gone to waste. Of course, the entire purpose of the People’s Veto is to ensure that the legislature doesn’t pass legislation that is contrary to the will of the people. If the legislation in question is viewed unfavorably by a majority of the people, then it should not have been passed in the first place. Others say that the legislature should be somewhat insulated from the transient whims of the people, and that if a majority of the people dislike something the legislature has done, they can vote them out in the next election. Still others argue that the veto referendum process is easily hijacked by special interest groups and does not truly reflect the will of the people at all. In any case, the People’s Veto is an interesting experiment that makes us question the role of the people in a representative democracy.
Anthony Balady is a student at William & Mary Law School and Editor-in-Chief of State of Elections.