Vote-counting on Nov. 2 lacked suspense. Early on, it was certain Question 1, to ban “high impact transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec region” would pass easily.

What could have been a vote about providing renewable energy to New England, with significant benefits for Maine – and displacing the fossil fuel-burning that creates global warming – was instead a popularity contest about Central Maine Power. The result was predictable, given the utility’s well-publicized customer satisfaction failures.

Add in a hugely expensive counter-campaign by Hydro Quebec and CMP that ended in utter incoherence, and we’ve got a mess on our hands.

While supporters hailed passage, they didn’t sound too sure, and shouldn’t be. Many have already forgotten a similar question was removed from the 2020 ballot by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) – the first time that’s happened – on constitutional grounds.

It’s by no means certain the new question escapes these issues, especially separation of powers, as it attempts to overturn lawfully granted permits by independent agencies. The high court will let us know sometime next year.

Question 1 suggests the questionable use, if not misuse, of initiative and referendum provisions added to the Maine Constitution in 1908. They’re unique in New England, except for Massachusetts, where it’s much harder to get to the ballot.

For 60 years after enactment, use was rare, and rarely successful. Just 10 questions reached the ballot, with only four enacted.

No questions were considered from 1948 onward. That’s when party-building peaked, with the once insignificant Democrats rising steadily to their present legislative dominance.

Politics was all about who would be elected, and how to influence them – producing a flood of important, and often progressive, legislation.

But the 1970s showed increased interest in initiatives as political and consumer activism surged; six questions proposed, and three enacted.

The floodgates opened in the 1980s, with referendums annually. Despite 12 questions considered, just four were passed, led by a three-time loser, closing the Maine Yankee nuclear plant.

The 1990s created a semblance of order; 15 questions were posed, and voters liked 11, including important laws such as the Clean Election Act, and popular, though problematic, limits on legislative terms, making leadership a revolving door and shifting power to the governor and lobbyists.

The wheels came off in the 2000s, with 17 question and just five successes. Conservative anti-tax advocates repeatedly tried to limit or repeal everything from property taxes to automobile excise taxes, failing every time.

Lately, it’s progressive forces on the march. Since 2010, 15 questions were proposed and 10 approved, but the numbers are misleading.

The 2016 election should have produced caution. As Donald Trump was taking the presidency amid then-record turnout, Maine voters puzzled over no fewer than five referendum questions, narrowly passing four.

Only one, annual increases in the minimum wage, survived intact. The others suffered mixed and confusing fates.

A marijuana adult-use initiative, product of two warring advocacy groups, was amended repeatedly, and still isn’t fully ready five years later. Earlier this year, lawmakers took back rulemaking from the agency created to administer the system.

A 3% income tax surcharge for education was repealed in the biennial budget. Republicans opposed the surcharge, while Democrats did nothing until the last minute, then gave in.

Then there was ranked-choice voting. While it survived a 2018 Republican repeal attempt, it couldn’t, and may never, achieve its principal aim: preventing progressives from splitting the vote in the governor’s race, as happened twice with Paul LePage.

The SJC, again citing the Constitution’s clear language, ruled that pluralities, not ranked-choice majorities, are required for governor. And since Congressman Bruce Poliquin lost his seat to Jared Golden by winning the first round, but losing ranked-choice, Republicans have turned implacably hostile, making a constitutional amendment an impossibility.

It’s fair to ask, after 65 referendum questions over 50 years, how much has been accomplished, contrasted with channeling the same energy into the legislative process.

A generation ago, Oregon and California were overrun by referendums. Only increasingly firm control by Democrats there has returned most lawmaking to the Legislature.

That’s not happening in Maine. Democrats can’t even agree with Democrats; two questions proposed for 2022 involve bills passed by the Legislature, but vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills.

Sore-loser questions, of which we have had plenty, crowd out campaigns that do need voter engagement, such as universal health care – a 2022 proposal you’ve probably heard nothing about.

Referendums work best when they’re relatively rare, and involve an issue not handled well by the Legislature. Instead, our fractured electorate will be asked to decide complex issues few of them understand – with results far too often regrettable.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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