Citizen-led Initiatives

Panel Discusses Pros and Cons

PORTLAND—The power to the people brought multiple questions to the ballots of Bar Harbor and Portland voters this month as voters decided the fate of cruise ship visits, town charters, retail marijuana, and minimum wages in both municipalities.

ThoughtCo explains ballot initiatives as “the process through which citizens exercise the power to place measures otherwise considered by state legislatures or local governments on statewide and local ballots for a public vote. Successful ballot initiatives can create, change or repeal state and local laws, or amend state constitutions and local charters. Ballot initiatives can also be used simply to force state or local legislative bodies to consider the subject of the initiative.”

Bar Harbor had three such initiatives in its November election. One, a cruise ship cap, passed. Two others about recreational marijuana retail failed. Portland had 13 questions on its ballot. Several of those had to do with charter changes. It also had a cruise ship question.  At least 24 states have ballot initiative measures. No federal laws control this process, which varies by state.

The process often creates a quicker endpoint for discussion or change with a simple yes or no vote unlike changes that go through the lengthier process of municipalities or legislatures.

On Thursday night, the Portland Press Herald held “Ballot Initiatives: Power to the People,” part of a “Policy Matters” series created by the paper. This session was moderated by the Press Herald’s Carol Coultas, business projects editor at the paper, and featured University of Maine Farmington’s Jim Melcher, Ph.D and John Brautigam, senior advisor to the Maine chapter of the League of Women Voters.

“Initiatives are very blunt instruments,” Melcher said. “Initiatives work best in places where people have enough knowledge to know what they were voting on.” Or the time, desire, or access to get that knowledge.

“Budgetary things don’t lend themselves to that (process) or things that have multiple positions in between.” Some issues, he said, are complicated or nuanced and better off with more compromise rather than being black or white, yes or no votes.

The amount of money spent on local issues is not usually tracked in municipalities with populations of less than 15,000, both panelists said.

“Democracy comes down to us, our family and our neighbors,” Brautigam said. Sometimes it’s a hassle when people ask you to sign petitions to get things before votes, but he says, “It’s a healthy benefit and it reminds us all that we are in a democracy.”

Melcher said he doesn’t believe its optimal to vote on that many issues as Portland had at one time. He doesn’t believe it leads to voters being as informed about all the issues as they could be. There are reports that South Dakota voters in 1910 “had six feet of proposals to be voted on,” wrote Willard L. Hogebloom for the New York Times, who believes that “the initiative is designed to short-cut the legislative process.”

According to the Press Herald, “Since 1911, Mainers have had the right to introduce ballot measures to change or create law. These citizen-led initiatives have had a profound impact at the municipal and state levels: think gay marriage, clearcutting, zoning restrictions and bearbaiting. But are they ripe for abuse? Should they be changed?”

There was no definitive answer in the first 90 minutes of the program, which mainly focused on state-wide citizen-led initiatives as the panelists began to “unpack a complicated issue but central to our rights in a democracy,” Coultas said of the 110-year-old process in Maine.

“A citizen initiative allows citizens to bypass legislature and create law,” Coultas said.

She added however that “it is hard for many voters to keep those issues straight and knowing the impact and who was behind those initiatives.” This was particularly true in Portland where voters faced so many choices.

Brautigam said that within Maine, the term limits question came around a couple of times and eventually limited state legislators’ consecutive terms in office. “It’s become part of Maine’s political culture. It is something that I think is here to stay. It is something that people have adjusted to. The longevity is a hallmark,” he said and added that clean elections changes came around in 1996. In 2015 that mandate was renewed. That was a citizen-led initiative that changed the face of Maine politics.

“One thing about both of those questions is that they both have to do with matters that are directly at interest to the legislators themselves,” Brautigam said. He believes that these changes make Maine a citizens’ legislature, which creates a sense of voters and everyday people making law for their neighbors and community rather than the legislature being a place of deep expertise. He believes citizens’ initiatives are a good check on that process.

Melcher said clean elections (Maine was one of the earliest states to adopt the rules) and ranked choice voting show how Maine is a innovative state and often the first to do something.

He added that these mechanisms allow for the public to make policy where they are moving but the legislature isn’t. Same-sex marriage, legalizing medical and the recreational marijuana are examples he gave of how “a relatively small, motivated group of people can put something on the agenda.”

“I think there’s a real role for legislatures to play in bargaining and hammering things out,” he said later on in the discussion.

Melcher added that “Maine is a cheap date” because outside interest groups see Maine as an inexpensive place to get a political win.

Brautigam said that the state process for citizen-led initiatives will change. “It’s changed 14 times since it was created in 1911.” He believes there will be a move toward gathering signatures online. This has happened in some states during the COVID-19 pandemic. The other thing is that next year there will be a ballot question about whether or not to allow foreign government money to be involved in ballot campaigns, he said


More than 300 papers have folded since 2019, but you need to have a robust and independent press to allow this apparatus to work, Coultas said. This she said is because journalists are meant to show all sides of issues so that voters can make informed choices.

“There are large sections of the country that no longer have a local daily newspaper,” Melcher said. National news only covers local issues if it’s a major splashy thing.

“It worries me,” he said. “It isn’t just a matter of local papers being important. . . . Not all news is created equal and not all news follows the tenets of journalism.”

A lot of people get their news from The Daily Show or TikTok, which he also worries about he said and added, “I’ve never seen a meme post a front page correction the next day.”

“We have a large problem nationally and globally with the information ecosystem,” Brautigam agreed. “It goes into covering all the local context and activity that informs people who can make a judgement later on.” Some states publish detailed guides to their ballot questions. Some get to the size of a telephone book, but there’s an importance for that information to be out there.

“If you look at an initiative on the ballot for the first time,” Melcher said, “your eyes will glaze over,” especially in the state level.

For the best kind of representative democracy, people have to come prepared, but often people don’t understand the money or people creating the initiatives and referendums, panelists said.

“You have to assess who is going to benefit,” Melcher said. Factions form because people have self-interests and you can’t assess that unless you know where the money and interest is coming from, he said, especially in initiatives which don’t have a political party cue that it aligns with the Democratic or Republican parties. There’s a higher amount of time and energy that citizens have to expend in order to understand what is going on and the implications.

At the municipal level, there are legal checks on charter amendments, Brautigam said. There doesn’t have to be legal review at the state level before initiatives get on the ballot.


Initiatives became a lot more common in the 60s and 70s, Melcher said. Television and internet has made it easier for people to spread the word about them.

Brautigam agreed and said that there has also been a larger degree of dissatisfaction in the last 25 years in the nation and locally. People feel representation is less robust and authentic. “There is a trend toward distrust and a lack of communication and connection between the constituents and their representatives.”

Melcher said initiatives began in the American Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s) to give citizens more control over their government. Both sides of the political spectrum become motivated when they believe that there are forces that aren’t benign and are culturally removed or financially removed from them representing them in government or controlling the government.

Since 1911 there have been 79 citizen initiatives brought before voters and over 100 constitutional amendments enacted in the state.


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