You may have recently heard the term “democratic backsliding” bandied about in the mainstream media by reporters and commentators alike.

It’s easy enough to conjure up a definition for mass consumption: it’s when a democratically elected government legally curtails the rights and privileges of its citizens, in defiance of previously-established norms, in order to stay in office or enhance their own power.

That definition is fair enough, and if it were applied equally to all elected governments all over the world, using it would be completely fair. The problem is that most commentators don’t apply it equally or fairly – they only use it when conservative governments do it, not when liberal governments do it. If we drop that bias, we can see that both sides do it, or at least try to – including right here in Maine.

The issue being raised at the moment is a seemingly innocuous one: the standards by which towns recall local elected officials, including school board members. Right now, state law says they can only be recalled (that is, removed from office) for criminal conduct, not merely over policy disagreements or for political reasons. There are a few competing proposals to change that, though: one would limit the reasons for recalls even more while increasing the signature requirements, essentially making recalls even more difficult than they already are. The other proposals would allow towns to have ordinances that allowed for recalls for any reason whatsoever.

Regardless of how one feels about recalls, it ought to be clear that one of these approaches limits democracy while the other expands it. In this case, though, it’s Republicans who are trying to expand democracy by letting towns have recalls for any reason they like, while a Democrat is trying to stifle democracy by restricting them even further. Imposing even more restrictions on local recalls isn’t just a solution in search of a problem, it would undermine two cherished Maine traditions: local control and direct democracy.

Town government is more powerful in New England than in most of the rest of the country, and Maine is no exception to that rule. Many towns all over the state still implement the traditional town meeting, when all citizens gather once a year to act as a legislative body in person. Others have abandoned that form of government, or shifted to a ballot-based system rather than an in-person meeting, but they did so after a robust public debate amongst the citizens – not based on some edict from Augusta.


Those towns and cities that have chosen to adopt recall ordinances have done the same, and there’s no need for the Legislature to step in to save them from themselves. If a town wants to impose additional restrictions on their own recall ordinance above and beyond what the state does, they’re free to do so.

Similarly, if they don’t want to have a recall ordinance at all, they don’t have to – or if they wish to repeal it because it’s caused too many problems, they’re free to do so.

On the flip side, if the Republican proposals to expand the reasons for recalls in state law pass, that doesn’t mean that every town and city would suddenly be forced to implement an expensive, anything-goes recall ordinance. Indeed, it might not affect any municipality at all: towns could continue to restrict their recalls to certain reasons, impose signature requirements all on their own, or not pass any recall ordinance at all.

It ought to be completely clear, though, that it’s the Democratic proposal to limit recalls that stifles democracy, while the Republican proposal to expand them enhances it. Every municipality across the state should be given the freedom to write and implement their own recall ordinance, not be blocked from doing so merely because progressive politicians in Augusta want to protect their allies. Any attempt to further limit local recall is a clear example of democratic backsliding – especially because it’s unnecessary and unjustifiable.

Let’s hold politicians the world over, regardless of their ideology, to the same standards when it comes to upholding democratic values.

If that ends up impugning one side more than the other, that’s just fine, providing it’s done fairly. Let’s stop pretending, though, that it’s a unique ideological problem and instead try to fight it no matter who is proposing it. That’s what would happen if we wanted to treat it as a real issue, rather than as a rallying cry to bludgeon our political opponents.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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