I was enjoying a late-afternoon walk last Saturday when I almost literally bumped into my local town clerk. “Beautiful afternoon for November,” I said. “I hardly would know,” she replied. “I’ve been processing absentee ballots all day.”

This little exchange reminded me of how Election Day has changed from an “arrange my day to get to the polls and see my neighbors” process into an isolated process of “remember to pick up my ballot and slog through the long lists of questions that exercising my civic duty now requires.”

It also got me pondering the elusive concept that seems to have come to the center of so many political debates these days. What, exactly, I thought, is “the will” of the people?

In the simplest sense, the “people’s will” is the outcome of their votes. In this sense, Maine has reason to swell with pride. According to the United States Election Project (http://www.electproject.org/home/ voter-turnout/ voter-turnout-data), Maine has one of the highest voter turnout ratios in the nation. When they divide votes cast by the universe of people eligible to vote, Maine had a voter turnout rate of just under 71 percent in 2016. This evidence of civic responsibility placed us far above the national rate of just over 59 percent and ranked us third among all the states (just behind Minnesota and New Hampshire and just ahead of Colorado).

In 2014 – a non-presidential election year – our voter turnout rate dropped to 58 percent, but this still put us far above the national rate of 36 percent and ranked us first among all the states. In 2012 – another presidential year – our rate was just over 68 percent, again well above the national rate of 58 percent and ranking us sixth among all the states.

But what about in non-presidential and non-state candidate election years, like 2017? Here (as is true everywhere) our turnout drops precipitously.

In 2014 and 2016, a strong majority of eligible Mainers went to the polls, but in 2015 the story was entirely different. The only citizen-initiated question on the ballot – changes proposed to the Clean Election campaign regulations – garnered 218,335 total votes.

The two small bond issues on the same ballot earned similar totals, but all three totals amounted to less than 21 percent of the state’s voting-eligible population. Voter turnout in 2015 amounted to about 36 percent of 2014 turnout and just 29 percent of 2016 turnout.

So what do these voting patterns tell us about the “will of the people”?

First, they tell us that “the people” don’t care equally about all issues and all elections. The chance to vote for president, state elective offices, five citizen-initiated questions and a $100 million transportation bond drew 542,572 more voters to the polls in 2016 than showed up to express their “will” about changing the Clean Election process and two small bond issues in 2015.

Similarly, the chance to vote for governor, state elective offices, one citizen-initiated question and a $100 million transportation bond drew 366,369 more voters to the polls in 2014 than showed up in 2015.

This wild fluctuation in voter turnout over the past several years, especially in light of Maine’s extremely high turnout rates by national standards, makes today’s turnout especially meaningful.

Will two citizen-initiated questions (a York County casino and expansion of Medicaid) together with a $105 million bond issue and a constitutional amendment (together with numerous local ballot questions) generate enough motivation to have more than a third of our eligible electorate show up to express its “will”?

Second, and more importantly, these data show that direct appeal to “the people’s will” seems to be on the rise. This trend – when coupled with our history of wildly fluctuating participation in “off-year” elections and the growing money available to vocal and highly motivated minorities to bring questions to “the people” – is reason to reconsider the structure and operation of this fourth branch of government.

Perhaps the fear that someone (Russians, Facebook, white supremacists, radical socialists or offshore gamblers) will infiltrate and “game” this system of governance will motivate bipartisan support for a serious look at the benefits and costs of direct democracy justified as “the will of the people.”

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]