ORONO — On May 18, Press Herald columnist Greg Kesich, in referring to the possible attempt to utilize the referendum process to veto the recently enacted health reform law, offered a column headlined “Mainers should just say ‘no’ to people’s veto.”

Disciples of the initiative and referendum reforms adopted in Maine in 1908 viewed them as a political means of “returning power to the people” by circumventing the Legislature, its committee structure and the corporate wealth and political machines that allegedly dominated both.

The “citizen lawmakers” for reform argued that direct democracy was a political prescription necessary to cure a flawed political system. They believed that the initiative and referendum would neutralize the abuse of private power and improve the working and living conditions of Maine’s citizens, “especially” for “the working classes and farmers.”

They anticipated an instant and peaceful political revolution from “plutocracy” to democracy would occur at all levels of government, and that the conflict between the “people’s will” and the “interests” would fade, citizen participation in the political process would be enhanced, the ends of justice served and the authentic voice of the community restored.

The reforms were inspired largely by economic issues, i.e., “taking from a few the power to control law-making bodies for their own personal profit.” (This has a very contemporary ring to it.)

While the State Referendum League, created in 1905 to secure “the people’s right to a direct vote on questions of public policy,” drew upon a mosaic of reformers, it was composed of “nearly all union men” frustrated by the numbing regularity of the “ought not to pass” reports emanating from various legislative committees that addressed labor-related issues.

Critics of the reforms argued that they would lead to political instability and that the general populace would fail to take sufficient interest in the new opportunity to exercise their sovereignty to make them a success.

Only a small contingent of voters, they claimed, would cast votes, thus giving the false impression that the majority of citizens had expressed their sentiments and convictions on a given issue. They feared that a passionate multitude, untutored in the intricacies of the legislative process and swayed by unprincipled leaders to think in terms of their own interest, might threaten the wealth, power, status and general well-being of others.

They admonished that the “people of Maine may be carried off their feet and that revolution may follow,” and that direct democracy had “something to do with Socialism.”

The floodgates of revolution would surely be opened, and one could only imagine the consequences. (The historical record indicates, however, that the reforms have been applied to a myriad of political issues far removed from class-based considerations.)

Maine joined the “rebirth” of direct democracy during the 1970s and 1980s as political cauldrons across the land were seething with initiatives and referendums. That surge brought with it contemporary critics who sought to hobble the “excesses” of democracy and the departure from the nation’s genuine republican political heritage of representative government.

Criticism crested in Maine in 2001 when numerous “anti-citizens’ initiative” bills were defeated, e.g., measures that increased the number of signatures required to have a referendum, required that petitions originate from all counties, banned referendum petitioners from polling places, and kept failed referendums from being resubmitted for six years.

The Coalition to Protect the Referendum, composed of more than 70 state groups and individuals — a mix of ideological interests such as environmentalists, labor, religious conservatives and others united in the common purpose of preserving direct democracy — held the fort.

Recently, some have called for amending the constitution to ban citizen initiatives.

Yes, issues are complex. But now that we have learned that corporations are “persons” and money is “free speech,” and a frayed labor movement is confronted by a new and transparent and orchestrated offensive against it, where is the countervailing power to be found? Surely, part of the answer is in direct democracy.

Rather than adopt Kesich’s advice, which seeks to hobble the direct voice of the citizenry on complex issues, perhaps it is preferable that The Portland Press Herald take whatever steps are necessary to help educate its readers by dedicating its columns with the knowledge essential to make informed judgments and thus help improve and secure direct democracy — the “town hall” writ large.

– Special to the Press Herald