With the 2015 election in the rearview mirror, it is time to look ahead to 2016: Not to the presidential election or the congressional races, but to what referendum issues might be lurking on the ballot for Mainers to decide. 2015 was, in fact, not only an off-year election, but an odd one at that. In previous off-year elections there had usually been more than one citizen initiative, people’s veto, or constitutional amendment for Mainers to consider. This year, however, there was only one: The question of whether to expand taxpayer-financed campaigns.
If the ballots themselves were relatively bereft of contests you might have noticed as soon as you stepped out of the voting booth that your polling place was busy. This was because there were advocates for a wide variety of citizens initiatives fanned out across the state collecting signatures. While there have been few ballot questions up for debate in the past several years, that’s likely to take a dramatic turn in the opposite direction in 2016.
There are currently eight petitions being circulated on a wide variety of topics, ranging from marijuana legalization to welfare reform. If even half of them succeed and are voted on next November, there’d be more policy questions on the ballot than in 2012 and 2008 combined. The question will be what effect, if any, they have on the election as a whole.
On one level, the referenda on the ballot are unlikely to have a dramatic effect on overall turnout. Maine generally has very high turnout in presidential elections, and that’s likely to continue in 2016 regardless of what referenda people are voting on. Indeed, many advocates of these referenda are likely hoping their chances will be buoyed in a higher turnout year, rather than the reverse. Still, even a small impact on turnout might help create an increase in 2016, rather than the decrease we saw in 2008.
What these ballot questions also may do is motivate a different kind of voter to the polls, and that might have an effect on elections across the state. Liberal voters, for example, might be more likely to show up to vote for some of these ballot questions then they are to vote for Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. Similarly, more conservative voters might be more inclined to vote because of these issues than they are to vote for whomever emerges from the current Republican presidential scrum. Even a marginal change in the makeup of the electorate can have a drastic effect on local races.
Regardless of turnout, these ballot issues may have quite an impact on local races. Legislative candidates are frequently pressured to take stands on citizen initiatives — even though the whole purpose of this process is to work around the Legislature. Some candidates will proudly take positions for or against certain measures, while others seek to avoid them entirely. Either way, they will undoubtedly affect the debate. Wise candidates will use this as an opportunity to further define both themselves and their opponent apart from simple party affiliation.
Rather than taking away volunteers from candidates, these ballot questions might get new people involved in politics who become future leaders of the party. We’ve seen this happen in the past with citizen initiatives (as well as with presidential campaigns), and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again.
2016 will be a busy election year, but in Maine the only statewide election — apart from the presidential race — will be these ballot issues. Instead of fearing these initiatives, candidates across the state in both parties should embrace the debate — and, perhaps, opportunity — that they bring to the table. Citizen initiatives, whether successful or not, often raise important questions, and there’s no reason for candidates to fear the ensuing debate.