Pubdate: Saturday, November 7, 1998
Source: Bangor Daily News (ME)
Copyright: 1998, Bangor Daily News Inc.
Author: Susan Kinzie


- -- Supporters of doctor-assisted suicide have tried four times to pass a
bill legalizing "death with dignity.'' Each time the bill failed by huge
margins. Now they're trying a new tactic, one that is increasingly common in
recent years: a citizen initiative. And for the volunteers who went to the
polls on Tuesday carrying petitions, things just got a lot easier. Instead
of having to collect 51,131 signatures from registered voters around the
state, they will probably only need something like 42,000 signatures. Every
vote counts. That's more true than ever in an election with low turnout, not
only for the individual races decided by just a handful of votes, but also
for the effect it has on the next year's ballot.

To get a question on the ballot requires getting signatures on petitions
equal to 10 percent of the turnout for the last gubernatorial election. This
year, although there aren't official figures yet, that number is expected to
drop by about 9,000 signatures, according to Assistant Secretary of State
Rebecca Wyke. "We don't have a magic number yet,'' she said, but it looks
like turnout was about 45 percent of registered voters, about 420,000 or so
people. That's a lower percentage than there has been since the 1950s.

And it means that for every group that has had trouble passing a bill in the
Legislature - to ban late-term abortions, for example, or to legalize the
medical use of marijuana - and wants to use more direct democracy, the bar
was just lowered. In the past year or two there have been several attempts
to collect signatures that failed because they didn't get quite enough by
the deadline.

"That makes a huge difference,'' said Bill Diamond, a former secretary of
state. "This will let a lot more issues on the ballot. ... It knocks off
9,000 or 10,000 signatures - that will make a lot of petitioners successful
where they would not ordinarily have been. It takes a long time and
extensive organization to get every 10,000 signatures.''

He predicted that the Legislature will debate whether or not to raise that
threshold somehow, requiring 15 percent of the vote or setting some other
standard. "There needs to be a fair threshold from people who may litter the
ballot with things that may or may not have support - the whole idea is a
groundswell, and you prove that by gathering 50,000 signatures plus the
extra 6-7,000 you need'' because many are likely to be disqualified for
various technical reasons.

Diamond said citizen initiatives are an important part of democracy but that
"there needs to be a way to separate the wheat from the chaff. There have
been so many chances for the marijuana group to get that issue on the
ballot,'' he said of an effort started years ago to legalize marijuana. That
group has never gotten enough signatures, but a national organization has
been sparking efforts all over the country to legalize medicinal uses of
marijuana. They expect to have enough signatures to be on the ballot in
Maine in 1999.

In fact, Mainers for Medical Rights had about 48,000 certified signatures
this summer, which kept them off the 1998 ballot, but would now be more than
enough to qualify.

Craig Brown, a consultant to Mainers for Medical Rights, said it's easier
with fewer signatures required, "but I don't think there's going to be a
whole new stampede of citizen initiatives that can make it - collecting
42,000 signatures is still a huge job. It's definitely a major undertaking.
I'm not sure how much we've spent, but it's an expensive process to mount a
statewide campaign.''

Citizen initiatives were rarely used until the 1970s; only six actually made
it onto the ballot. Then there was a dramatic increase. There already have
been nine put to voters in the 1990s, and there are 17 petition drives in
various stages of organization now, according to the Secretary of State's
Office. Christopher Coughlan, the executive director of the Maine Right to
Life Committee, said he's confident that voters in 1999 will be deciding
whether or not to ban partial-birth abortions. "It's certainly not an easy
job to do it,'' he said of collecting the signatures. "Even 40,000 would not
be an easy job.''

Abortion is an issue, like gay rights and forestry regulations, that the
Legislature has had a hard time with. Both of those ended up on ballots and
set off fierce debates. Diamond said he's concerned that the give-and-take
of the legislative process is removed, and the debate can be effectively
reduced to campaign ads. Even though, technically, a law passed by voters
could be changed by lawmakers, "the Legislature historically has not wanted
to change one iota of that bill, because people just voted on it.''

For Susan Shell, who's seen polls showing as much as 70 percent of Maine
voters supporting an assisted-dying law, "and the Legislature was very
reticent about passing this ... it just seemed like the natural thing to do
to go the referendum route.'' She said Mainers for Death With Dignity are
hoping to get their question on the 2000 ballot, and the lower number of
signatures required "will definitely help us.''

- ---
Checked-by: Rolf Ernst