Legislative Committee Still Working Hard to Silence Maine Voters

Thu, Mar 4 2010 by Anonymous

Ballot Box

As I anticipated, yesterday’s work session in the Maine Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee discussion centered on Senator Seth Berry’s bill, the amended version of LD 1690 (LD 1690-A), that contains provisions meant to curtail the ballot initiative and People’s Veto referendum rights of Mainers. LD 1730, with similar provisions, was also slated to be discussed but was not.

Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner was there to provide guidance regarding legally defensible issues/components of the bills. She started out by telling the committee she was not real sure what they were trying to accomplish or what specific issue they were trying to address in Maine law and would like clarification during their discussion. She further instructed them on the very high threshold with which the courts view constitutionally protected political free speech and the narrowness of the laws in this area that must address a “compelling government interest”.

Throughout the back and forth discussion it was apparent Assistant Attorney General Gardiner was unsure what deficiency in Maine law the committee was trying to address. Sponsors and supporters of the bills claim they are necessary to combat fraud, however Gardiner mentioned several times that while fraud had been perpetrated in signature gathering efforts, those instances brought to the attention of law enforcement had been prosecuted, and she did not feel Maine law was deficient in preventing and prosecuting fraud. She agreed at one point that current laws are working based on the small number of fraud cases brought forward in with petition process - mentioning last year’s Peoples Veto of  ”An Act to Promote Marriage Equality and Affirm Religious Freedom”: 1300 petition circulators and no incidence of fraud.

She also told the committee they were never going to be able to structure language that would PREVENT fraud from occurring during the petition process, which is what several committee members indicated they want!

Gardiner had reservation regarding the section that permits the removal of signatures from petitions, indicating that would have to be looked at very close because it could invite fraud as written, so she would want that area tightened up.

She also had problems with the bills requiring petition organization to register and pay fees. Said the fees “looked” to be charging to participate in free speech and would need to be looked at closely as it could violate the First Amendment.

As the meeting progressed, various committee members ask the Assistant  Attorney General which parts of LD 1690-A - section by section - she felt could be defended in a court of law, based on the constitutionality of political free speech or “compelling government interest” in this area.

She also mentioned Doe v. Reed, a case currently in the US Supreme Court over whether petition signatures are a matter of public record, noting that changes of LD 1690-A/1730 could prove problematic in the long run and lead the state into further court cases. “We (the Attorney General’s Office) are very interested in the Washington state U.S. Supreme Court case.”

After the committee moved on to other business, the came back to LD 1690-A/1730 and decided that these bills will be taken-up in another work session next Wed, 3/10, at 10:00 am. At least that was the verbal agreement.

It is worth noting that when they quit the work session on LD 1690-A/1730, they took a short break and I happened to catch Senator Sullivan (the Committee Chair) in the hall and ask if she thought they would take up work on LD 1690-A/1730 later and her response was, “We might or someone could table it or…it is obvious the committee is not going to come to consensus on this, so we will have some sort of Divided Report.”

Make no mistake, based on the above and the overall mood I sensed in the committee, I believe right now that a bill will be brought forward in an attempt to severely restrict Maine Citizen’s constitutionally protected right to redress their government through the political process of Citizens Initiative or Peoples Veto.

 

Tim Russell is a Maine petition rights activist.