The Waterfront Protection Ordinance campaigns are dueling mightily in South Portland. Scarborough will likely vote to repeal a controversial new leash law. Opponents of the revitalization of Portland’s Congress Square are considering a lawsuit to force a referendum.

These are but a smattering of the local referendum campaigns either underway or soon to come. Additionally, we can add a slew of recent or anticipated statewide efforts, covering issues from bear baiting, to tax reform, gaming, same-day voter registration, marriage equality and state education standards (to name a few).

I’ve observed many of these campaigns both from afar and as a direct combatant. And in each case, I’ve arrived at a single conclusion: Even if you support the eventual outcome, they’re a terrible way to make public policy.

First, referenda short-circuit our system of government, replacing our representative democracy – where we elect our leaders and empower them to make decisions on our behalf – with direct democracy, where everyone gets a vote on the hot button issue of the day.

And while that sounds like democracy in its purest form, these campaigns are something considerably less desirable.

And these initiatives provide politicians with an all-too-convenient parachute to avoid making tough and consequential decisions, punting under the guise of “letting the people decide.”

Traditionally, the people had their say and influenced public policy by electing ideologically like-minded individuals to represent them, re-electing them if they sufficiently performed or voting them out if they did not.

Only seven citizen initiated laws were on Maine’s ballot during the first 60 years after voters approved the process, and there were none during the l950s and l960s. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s that the movement truly picked up steam.

But that movement removes policy decisions from legislative or other deliberative public processes – where opposing sides can often dialogue and compromise to find solutions – and subjects them to the rhetorical extremes, zealotry and vagaries of political campaigning.

Rather than dispassionate public policy debates, referendum campaigns are often impassioned shouting matches where emotions run rampant over facts and the quality of ideas, and where outcomes are often dictated by who can shout the loudest and longest.

That, in turn, frequently depends on who has the most money, the better organization, or the most compelling sound bite.

In smaller communities, these campaigns can turn particularly personal, nasty and divisive, tearing at the social fabric by pitting neighbor against neighbor. And when the voting is over, the arily abate quickly or easily.

But perhaps the worst part of the referendum process is how easily it can be hijacked by a small group of activists bent on pursuing their own particular issue or ideology, or by corporate interests with the resources and determination to get their way.

Committed activists are often willing to devote almost limitless time, energy and resources to achieve their ideological ends, happily casting an entire community or even state into a distracting and costly debate.

That’s what’s happened in South Portland, what led to the Congress Square political circus in Portland and is likely coming with a handful of new statewide referenda efforts.

More recently, corporate interests have co-opted the process, seeking redress at the ballot box when unable to work their will legislatively. Look no further than recent gaming referenda, the beverage industry’s Dirigo tax campaign or the 2009 tax reform repeal effort.

Turnabout is fair play for industry groups, however, since referenda campaigns represent a persistent threat to business.

Whether you’re a hotel developer, a pipeline company, build windmills or put water in a bottle, a small band of activists can scuttle even the most measured development plan.

That’s increasingly the case in the social media age, where almost any plan to move a shovel of earth will spawn a dedicated opposition with sophisticated mobilization tools.

These campaigns frequently play upon the public’s growing distrust of nearly any large entity, but especially profit-making corporations run by real or imagined “1 percenters” or worse if they are ‘from away.’

If businesses can’t predictably make significant local investments without the real threat of defending against a resource-intensive local referendum campaign, they are likely to take those dollars elsewhere.

Referenda supporters claim the tool is a necessary check on potential government overreach. And likely that was the process’ original intent.

But today, they have morphed into a political weapon deployed simply to advance an agenda. That’s not how public policy should be made.

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Congressman Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at:

[email protected] Twitter @CuzziMJ

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