Have you been hassled recently by signature collectors for one ballot question or another? It seems like every time I go out there’s someone wanting me to sign a petition to put something on the ballot for voters to decide.
And I have to say, they aren’t always pleasant conversations. My polite ‘”No thanks” has produced high pressure tactics and rudeness. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s not my concern.
What I do worry about is that many voters don’t know what they are signing, or what their signature means.
In the legislature, a bill gets a public hearing and lawmakers hear supporting and opposing views on the bill. That give and take continues during work sessions, where lawmakers with expertise in the bill’s subject matter talk about how the bill could be better. Staff and lawyers test the bill against existing law. Usually the process produces a better piece of legislation than the original bill’s draft.
But initiated legislation – the bills submitted through the petition process by signature gathering – they have different rules. No public hearing. No work sessions. No debate at all on the words on the petition you signed. Just an up or down vote: pass the petition language as submitted with no changes at all (not even corrections to obvious mistakes), or send the petition directly to the voters.
Now experts out there are saying “What about a competing measure?” True, the legislature can draft an alternative bill on the same subject as the petition and send that alternative out to the voters along with the original, unchanged petition and let voters sort out the mess. But the only debate we’ll have then are sound bites and bumper stickers.
Campaigns are no place for the thoughtful refinement of policy.
One other thing – when a petition is successfully submitted to the legislature, a lockout kicks in. Lawmakers cannot make laws in that same subject matter area as long as the petition question is pending. That stops the legislature from end-running the petition by passing a similar law, but it also hobbles our representative government for a full year in a subject matter area. No small thing in when time is of the essence.
It’s ok to say “No” to signature gathers. It’s bad enough that the folks hassling you for a signature are getting paid to do it, often $10 per signature or more. It’s bad enough they come from out of state for the money, and have no interest in what’s best for Maine.
But what you really need to consider before you sign is this: Do I want to tie the legislature’s hands so we can have a political campaign to decide this complicated issue in a way that’s designed to defeat thoughtful lawmaking in favor of money, politics and bumper stickers? If voters had that in their minds when a petition was stuck in their face I think we’d have better government and fewer petitions.