Looking for a little direct democracy? Maine has just the thing.

Before we get to that, keep in mind what H.L. Mencken once so wisely noted: “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”

In other words, a little democracy goes a long way – usually in the wrong direction.

That brings us to the People’s Veto, a constitutional amendment that allows ordinary Mainers to block laws approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, forcing these issues to a popular vote. In recent years, it’s been used to prevent the state from granting civil rights to LGBTQ people, to upend tax reform and to restore ranked-choice voting – all excellent examples of Mencken’s collective wisdom of individual ignorance.

To institute a People’s Veto, the aforementioned individuals must get ballot-question wording approved by the secretary of state, after which they have to collect more than 63,000 signatures of registered voters within 90 days following the Legislature’s adjournment. This year, the deadline is Sept. 18. To accomplish that, you need a band of relentless fanatics.

Speaking of which, the Christian Civic League of Maine, a bunch of homophobes and a coalition of science deniers who refuse to vaccinate their children before sending them to public schools, have four People’s Veto campaigns in the works.

The league wants to overturn a measure allowing the state Medicaid program to fund abortions for low-income women, and it wants to nullify a bill to allow physician-assisted suicides.

The gay-haters seek to halt a measure outlawing subjecting kids to conversion therapy to make sure they grow up straight.

The anti-vaxers are trying to restore religious belief as a legal reason to let kids spread serious childhood illnesses.

These sorts of issues involve muddled mixtures of emotion, tradition and magical thinking, with only the faintest traces of logic. Those aren’t considerations best dealt with in a winner-take-all battle for political supremacy. As William Coogan, then a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, put it in a Bangor Daily News story back in 1997, “(The People’s Veto is) what amounts to a shotgun behind the door – so if the Legislature does something particularly stupid or particularly violative of the public interest, people can repeal it. It’s used with a great deal of restraint in the state of Maine, and it should be used with a great deal of restraint.”

When Coogan made that statement, there had only been 22 People’s Veto attempts in the 87 years since the process was created, an average of one every four years. Since then the pace has increased, with such ballot questions going to voters approximately every three years. That’s too little restraint and way too much democracy.

The four current People’s Vetoes are being organized through a network of evangelical churches. While these institutions will probably be able to muster enough disgruntled reactionaries to gain the necessary signatures for most of these vetoes, their overall numbers are relatively small when compared to the electorate at large. Conventional wisdom says they’ll have little luck at the ballot box in November.

Conventional wisdom, like direct democracy, is a dangerous concept in which to put one’s faith.

With little else of consequence on the ballot this November, turnout for the People’s Veto questions will be low. Only fanatics will be motivated to vote. And who are the supporters of these initiatives?

The collective wisdom of individual ignorance strikes again.


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