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The Coastal Packet

The longtime national journal, Progressive Review, has moved its headquarters from Washington DC to Freeport, Maine, where its editor, Sam Smith, has long ties. This is a local edition dealing with Maine news and progressive politics.

2/10/10

PETITION PAY TO PLAY SYSTEM UNDERMINES DEMOCRACY

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting - The Maine Commission of Governmental Ethics and Election Practices calculated the total amount of money spent on signature gathering between 2006-2009 on issues from tax reduction to gay marriage. The total was $1,660,000.

Of that, nearly $1.2 million went to one California firm to gather signatures for groups pushing three ballot questions: vetoing same sex marriage, which was successful last year, and approving a casino in Oxford County and defeating the tax legislation, both of which will be on the June ballot.

Generally, according to public officials and those in the signature collecting business, the pay is anywhere between 50 cents to $2 per signature.

In his study of the citizen initiative process titled "Democracy Derailed," syndicated columnist David Broder quotes David Frohnmayer, president of the University of Oregon, a state that also allows initiatives:

"It's no longer citizens fighting the oligopoly. Now it's the oligopoly paying people to act as citizens.". . .

In 1994, the Maine Legislature was so concerned about the effect of per-head signature gathering on the integrity of the process that it passed a ban on the practice, while still allowing gatherers to be paid by the hour, for example.

"The whole thing gave me the complete total shivers," said Marge Kilkelly, who sponsored the bill when she was in the legislature representing the Wiscasset area.

But the law was struck down in federal district court based upon the argument that the law was not "consistent with the First Amendment" and might hinder the citizen initiative process. But the court also suggested it might have ruled otherwise of the state had presented any evidence of actual fraud.

Those concerns were not enough for the court to uphold the ban, partly because, "To the secretary's knowledge, no petition circulator in Maine who has been paid per signature as been prosecuted for forgery in connection with signature gathering."

But North Dakota was able to have a similar law upheld by the federal courts in 2001. That law prohibited paying per signature and required circulators to be state residents The court ruled that "these two regulations are designed to protect the integrity of signature gathering."

North Dakota's case was made stronger because, unlike Maine 10 years ago, it was able to cite at least one example of fraud: 17,000 invalidated signatures, some of which had been gathered by paid workers from Utah.

That state's law, the court said, ensures that a ballot issue "has grassroots support in North Dakota and that the initiative process is not completely taken over by moneyed interests and out of state special interest groups.". . .

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