I have mixed feelings about ballot questions. In a state the size of Maine (pop. 1.32 million; 824,000 registered voters), we could almost just vote on everything ourselves, without the need for an elected legislature — but we have an elected legislature, and they're supposed to be better-informed and more thoughtful than the rest of us about these big issues. The point of electing a legislature is to avoid the tyranny of the majority and save ourselves from our worse natures, especially under stress. We elect leaders to lead us, and make the decisions that we don't want to make.
Ballot questions subvert this process, although I see the need for them as a final check on legislatures run amok. They're also necessary, in Maine, as a final step before the state increases its debt through bond issues, and they are part of the official process for amending the state Constitution.
On this year's ballot, Question 6 is a bond issue ($71.25 million for highway, bridge and harbor construction, plus funding for the LifeFlight program) and Question 7 is on a constitutional amendment to extend the time period for certifying signatures on voter-initiative petitions. The other five questions are on specific issues, and most involve overturning decisions already made by the legislature.
1. A People's Veto of Maine's law allowing same-sex marriage. Maine passed a law allowing same-sex marriages earlier this year; this initiative would overturn that law. The ballot question itself is a little convoluted: "Do you want to reject the new law that lets same-sex couples marry, and allows individuals and religious groups to refuse to perform these marriages?" Thus, a "yes" vote is one against same sex marriage, and a "no" vote is one for the new law in place. We voted on this issue in 2004, right after I first moved to Maine; the initiative passed, which meant that the marriage-rights bill was repealed. I'm dismayed that this is on the ballot again, and even more dismayed that it seems to be a close race.
2. A Citizen Initiative to lower Maine's municipal excise tax on motor vehicles. "Do you want to cut the rate of the municipal excise tax by an average of 55% on motor vehicles less than six years old, and exempt hybrid and other alternative-energy and highly fuel-efficient motor vehicles from sales tax and three years of excise tax?" Pro: the annual excise tax on cars is one of the most regressive, and tax incentives to buy hybrids are a good idea. Con: Revenue reductions from lowering the excise tax will just be made up in higher property taxes. Then again, I'm not a property owner.
3. A Citizen Initiative to undo school consolidation. "Do you want to repeal the 2007 law on school district consolidation and restore the laws previously in effect?" The Maine legislature voted in 2007 to consolidate school districts around the state, in the face of declining revenues and an aging population. The process of consolidation is already underway, and it's just as painful as everyone knew it would be. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, and I can't imagine what kind of mess trying to undo it would create. Then again, I don't have kids in Maine public schools.
4. A Citizen Initiative to give taxpayers more direct control over state and local government spending. Known more commonly as TABOR, the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights. I have friends working both sides of this question: "Do you want to change the existing formulas that limit state and local government spending and require voter approval by referendum for spending over those limits and for increases in state taxes?" This is not a small issue; this is a major philosophical shift in our entire system of self-government. Read both sides of the issue here (pro) and here (con).
5. A Citizen Initiative to increase the availability of medical marijuana. "Do you want to change the medical marijuana laws to allow treatment of more medical conditions and to create a regulated system of distribution?" Maine has had a medical marijuana law since 1998, but federal laws prohibiting its distribution have made the law essentially ineffective. The 1998 law applies to a relatively narrow spectrum of disorders: persistent nausea caused by treatments for AIDS or cancer; glaucoma; seizure disorders; persistent muscle spasms caused by chronic illnesses such as multiple sclerosis. Question 5 would expand that list to include hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease and other illnesses, and would create a statewide system of nonprofit, board-governed dispensaries to provide regulated access to prescribed marijuana. It's easy to make cracks about this, but I toured a medical marijuana facility in West Hollywood several years ago, and was deeply moved by what I saw. It's a tricky issue, but the people who need it should be able to get it. I feel the same way about heroin for terminal cancer patients.