History of Initiative & Referendum in Maine

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In 1908, Maine became the first state east of the Mississippi to adopt a constitutional provision for statewide initiative and referendum. It could not have happened without the work of the state's foremost I&R advocate, Roland Patten of Skowhegan.

In the early 1900s, Patten, editor of the Skowhegan Somerset Reporter, was an advocate of municipal ownership of public utilities. "About 1894," he wrote, he "heard something of the idea [of I&R] as made use of in Switzerland" and realized that I&R could be used in the cause of municipal ownership.

A member of the Republican Party, he first pushed for adoption of an I&R resolution at the Republican convention in his county. Failing there, he became a leader of the state's Socialist Party and lobbied all four of the state's major parties - Republican, Democratic, Socialist, and Prohibitionist - to endorse I&R. In 1902 Maine Democrats adopted Patten's I&R resolution verbatim, and in 1903 Democratic State Representative Cyrus W. Davis of Waterville introduced the first statewide I&R bill.

Roland Patten, pictured with a helmet. Source: Maine Memory Network

Initiative and Referendum League of Maine

Meanwhile, Patten had founded the Initiative and Referendum League of Maine and had allied with the state Grange and the state Federation of Labor. In 1905 they nearly succeeded: their I&R bill got a tie vote in the state senate. The following year all four parties endorsed I&R, and Davis made it a central issue in his Democratic gubernatorial campaign.

Davis lost to Republican William T. Cobb, who was lukewarm on the issue, but the I&R League succeeded in electing more I&R supporters to the legislature. Despite opposition from banks, timberland owners, and railroads, the legislature passed an initiative bill without a single dissent.

Yes to statutes, no to amendments

However, it was not exactly what the I&R League wanted: it provided for initiative statutes, but not constitutional amendments. The Republicans, who controlled both houses of the legislature, forced the initiative advocates to accept this compromise because they feared that an initiative constitutional amendment might be used to repeal their state's Prohibition amendment.

Governor Cobb signed the I&R amendment on March 20, 1907, but it still had to be ratified by popular vote before taking effect. In the 18 months prior to this vote, most of the state's newspapers published editorials opposing I&R, and Maine's U.S. Senator Hale sent his constituents copies of a vehement speech opposing it by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. Nevertheless, voters approved I&R by a margin of more than two to one on September 15, 1908. The day of the vote the polls opened at 6 a.m. and the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad delayed its 6 a.m. train one half-hour to give male passengers time to vote. Local mills opened at 7 a.m., an hour later than usual, so male workers could vote before work. Only a little more half of those who went to the polls bothered to vote either for or against the measure.[1]

First initiative in 1911

The first initiative on the state ballot, the Direct Primary Law, was a victory for the Progressives: a law mandating the nomination of state and county candidates by popular vote in primary elections, rather than in party conventions. It passed by a margin of more than three to one on September 11, 1911.

Low initiative activity

Only seven initiatives were on the ballot during the first 60 years of the initiative process, and there were none during the l950s and l960s. The only successful measure after 1911 was a 1936 statute, the Maine Highway Fund Act (1936), "to prevent diversions of the general highway fund" to uses others than highways.

In the l970s, Maine voters, like those in other states, rediscovered their power to make laws by initiative. In 1972 they approved an initiative, the Maine Form of Ballots Act (1972), to change the ballot form to eliminate party columns in order to encourage voters to give each candidate independent consideration.

Energy and environment take center stage

The Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, Maine. Closed in 1996

In the 1970s and 1980s, more than half of Maine's initiatives were about energy and environmental matters. In 1976, voters enacted a beverage container deposit (the Bottle Bill) initiative and established a state park at Bigelow Mountain; in 1980 and 1982, they turned down proposed initiatives to ban nuclear power, following massive "Vote No" ad campaigns paid for by the owners of the Maine Yankee nuclear plant. The Maine Nuclear Referendum Committee, sponsors of the nuclear ban initiative, won only one campaign: the Maine Radioactive Waste Referendum in 1985. This statute required that any proposal to dump low-level radioactive waste in the state of Maine must be put to a statewide vote.

In 1986, consumer advocates waged a successful battle against the local telephone company to pass an initiative, the Telephone Service Act, outlawing local measured service, whereby callers are charged by the minute for local calls. The company had set a campaign spending record with its "Vote No" ads, which featured former U.S. senator and 1972 presidential candidate Edmund Muskie.

State lawmakers react against term limits

However, with the passage of term limits in the early 90s, state lawmakers began a crusade against the initiative process by passing numerous changes to the state's I&R laws. One such new law prohibiting petition circulators to be paid by signature. This law was struck down by the Federal Courts as a violation of the First Amendment. The lawsuit was sponsored by the Initiative & Referendum Institute.

External links


This article is significantly based on an article[2] published by the Initiative & Referendum Institute, and is used with their permission. Their article, in turn, relies on research in David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.[3]


  1. Bangor Daily News, "People’s veto got its start in 1908", September 15, 2008
  2. History of Maine's initiative
  3. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution Temple University Press, 352 pp., ISBN-10: 0877229031, October 1991