We all know a story of someone “doing something” only to make matters worse. Just “doing something, even if it’s wrong” is rarely the right answer. Staying put when lost is almost always the right answer. Doctors pledge first to do no harm. A few folks have even suffered from not heeding my wife’s advice that “It’s never too late to shut up.” When we don’t know what we’re doing, doing nothing is usually the best answer.
That applies to voting this November: staying home is unacceptable and irresponsible, but voting without understanding the questions and their implications is worse. What follows doesn’t try to persuade anyone how to vote on the ballot questions, but instead tries to persuade as many as possible to first do their homework and then vote!
Four statewide questions will be on the ballot. The questions themselves are available at maine.gov. The citizen’s guide found there provides the exact wording of the questions and lots of factual information regarding the questions: goo.gl/SbVoDK.
Beyond the questions themselves, there are other things voters should ensure they understand. The first of these is that the referendum process bypasses the Legislature to enact laws that affect the lives of all Maine residents. Whether the process is abused is a matter of opinion, but it should not be a matter of opinion that the lack of an informed and vigilant electorate virtually guarantees abuse: (goo.gl/KTKKSs).
Hopefully only those who stand on a soapbox and lecture the shrubbery believe that laws should be passed without deliberation, debate, and detailed knowledge. Yet the referendum process does this when voters don’t pay attention. The legislative process ensures expert testimony is presented to the committees that recommend a bill “ought to pass” or “ought not pass” to the full body after extensive effort and deliberation. Unfortunately, some vote on referendum questions without even knowing whether a “yes” vote means the measure will be enacted or defeated (which is why it’s explained in the voter’s guide) and many more have no information beyond the wording of the question on the ballot.
When measures are enacted through the legislative process, the full Legislature votes, but when measures are enacted through the referendum process, half the voters who show up plus one decide. This coming November, turnout is expected to be about 20 percent, which means these questions may be decided by 10 percent of Maine’s voters. Representing that as the “will of the people” would be an outrage and a desecration of the concept, even if all these voters came to the polls informed.
Maine’s referendum process is a target of out-of-state special-interest groups not in the least interested in the will or the good of Maine people. These groups can advance their agendas by spending relatively little money, collecting just a few signatures in metropolitan parking lots to place their issue on our ballots. Whether that constitutes abuse may be a matter of opinion, but there is no legitimate dispute that it happens. These incessant ballot questions are an imposition on Maine voters, requiring them to waste time researching issues or be irresponsible citizens and either not vote or vote without knowing the impact of their vote on their lives and the lives of others.
Some voters may decide referendum questions don’t affect them (i.e., gun “control,” gay marriage, bear-baiting, recreational marijuana). I’d remind them of Martin Niemoller’s quote: “First they came for the Jews … ” But every question with a fiscal impact, and especially those funding a new benefit or borrowing money (bond issues), affect every voter. The impact on taxpayers is obvious, but even those who pay no tax and depend on government benefits are affected. Our Legislature, governor, and state agencies are always making difficult choices as they distribute scarce resources among competing priorities. Often it means something that was authorized doesn’t get fully funded or that new applicants go on waiting lists. Surely the most egregious recent examples were the decisions that led to hospitals not being paid under the previous Medicaid expansion and the inability to cover truly disabled people who have “aged out” of coverage under their parents’ plans.
So please download and study the voter’s guide, then research both sides of each question. Insist on facts, not assertions, emotional appeals, and “oh, poor me” TV advertisements. Resolve to vote Nov. 7 and make the “will of the people” something more than a cruel and duplicitous joke.
(Ken Frederic is a Maine native and alumnus of Brewer High School and the University of Maine at Orono. Before retirement, he worked as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense. He and his wife, Betty Ann, now live in Bristol and volunteer with several community organizations.)