Politics & Other Mistakes: Referendum revulsion

6 mins read

Nothing’s better for democracy than misusing it to ask voters to make decisions on complex issues they don’t know squat about. That’s how the city of Portland operates, and it’s working out great.

Unless you can’t afford to live there.

The idea that complicated issues (rent control, sub-minimum wages, powerful mayor) are best decided by putting them out to referendum allows partisans on all sides to overwhelm the public with misinformation, thereby obscuring important concerns and unintended consequences.

But that’s just Portland, where the parks are full of homeless people, the streets are full of traffic jams, and the restaurants are full of tourists taking photos of their overpriced meals to share with their less fortunate friends back home.

The rest of the state doesn’t operate that way.

Until now.

This November’s ballot features four referendum questions, all of them complicated, and all of them easily reduced to simplistic slogans designed to obscure the results of casting an uninformed vote. It represents an unprecedented opportunity to extend Portland-style government to all of Maine.

Here’s a rundown of the stuff we’re being given an opportunity to mess up.


Right to repair

What it does: It requires auto manufacturers to share diagnostic information with independent repair shops, so you don’t have to go to the dealer to get your car fixed.

Why proponents say it’s a good idea: It would end a monopoly on repairs to newer cars, thereby lowering prices.

Why opponents say it’s a bad idea: It’s technologically complicated and might allow access to vehicle computer systems by criminal elements.

Overly simplistic slogan in favor: Screw Big Auto.

Overly simplistic slogan against: Hackers Will Take Control of Your Car.

Chances of a lawsuit if it passes: 100%. A nearly identical law approved by Massachusetts voters over two years ago has been tied up in court ever since.

Chances it will pass: Overwhelming.


Consumer-owned electric utility

What it does: Authorizes the state to buy the assets of Central Maine Power and Versant Power, and, according to the wording of the ballot question, create a “quasi-governmental power company governed by an elected board.”

Why proponents say it’s a good idea: It’ll lower prices and increase reliability.

Why opponents say it’s a bad idea: It’ll boost costs and inject politics into utility decisions.

Overly simplistic slogan in favor: Screw CMP.

Overly simplistic slogan against: It’s Socialism. Or Maybe Communism.

Chances of a lawsuit if it passes: 100%. Company officials have already threatened litigation.

Chances it will pass: Yes, by a razor-thin margin.


Require voter approval for big borrowing

What it does: CMP financed this effort to thwart the previous question by putting any bond issue to buy out the utility out to a separate vote.

Why proponents say it’s a good idea: The electric company figures once voters see the price tag to take over its operation, they’ll get cold feet.

Why opponents say it’s a bad idea: The public will already have agreed to this expenditure by approving the takeover. No further vote needed.

Overly simplistic slogan in favor: Stop the Steal.

Overly simplistic slogan against: Screw CMP.

Chances of a lawsuit if it passes: 50%. Depends on the outcome of the lawsuits about the previous question.

Chances it will pass: Likely, because voters won’t understand the implications.


Outlaw foreign contributions in Maine referendum campaigns

What it does: Prevents governments and companies from other countries from pumping cash into initiative races in this state.

Why proponents say it’s a good idea: During the referendum to ban the CMP corridor, Canadian-owned Hydro-Quebec spent heavily to defeat the measure. This would close a legal loophole that already bans such meddling in federal races and state candidate elections.

Why opponents say it’s a bad idea: Some Maine-based companies have foreign investors, which might restrict them from involvement in campaigns that affect them.

Overly simplistic slogan in favor: Screw Hydro-Quebec – and CMP.

Overly simplistic slogan against: Protect Corporate Free Speech.

Chances of a lawsuit it if passes: Not too likely. This is already law in several states.

Chances it will pass: Bet on it.


Now get to the ballot box and make bad decisions.


Want to start a petition drive to make it tougher to start a petition drive? Email me at aldiamon@heniahill.net.

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