As a candidate for the Maine House of Representatives (House Candidate) stands patiently on the podium at a political rally, she smiles and waves to supporters as she is introduced. She then steps to the microphone and begins an impassioned recitation of her campaign platform: improving education in Maine's schools, providing health insurance to the uninsured, and adequately funding state agencies to protect the environment. She concludes with a shrewd but simple promise-"Read my lips: no new taxes!" The crowd roars. This is what makes Americans hate politics and politicians-unrealistic and untenable campaign promises. House Candidate is hardly the first politician to make such promises, and she is unlikely to be the last. According to a nationwide poll conducted during the 2000 general election campaign, 81 percent of respondents felt that "most political candidates will say almost anything to get themselves elected." Although voters' distaste for campaign promises is not unfounded, the true impact on government policy of such promises is greatly exaggerated. Republican democracy does not allow the promises of lone political candidates to be translated into statute by fiat. Instead, representative government requires compromise throughout a highly deliberative legislative process. Once House Candidate is elected and becomes House Member, she will have to navigate the legislative process, including its strict procedural and financial rules, and its intricate system of checks and balances. These realities restrain the implementation of bills that are unrealistic, unaffordable, or contradictory. In the last century, the popular exercise of legislative power, known as direct democracy, has gained inclusion in the constitutions of twenty-four states across the country, including Maine's. Maine's system of direct democracy utilizes the initiative process. Through this process, Maine citizens may exercise the legislative power by gathering signatures of registered voters on a petition in favor of a proposal. If the petition receives a sufficient number of signatures, the proposal is "initiated" and placed before the next session of the legislature. The legislature then holds public hearings and ultimately votes on the proposal up or down, without the ability to amend. If the proposal is enacted by the legislature and signed by the Governor, it becomes law; if it fails enactment in the legislature, citizens are presented with the question of enactment at the ballot box. Maine's initiative process thus gives citizens a mechanism by which to exercise the legislative power partially independent of the legislature. Though such a mechanism certainly has distinct benefits for citizens, it is not free from problems akin to the issue of campaign promises made by candidates. Because Maine's initiative process occurs in the public, primarily outside the deliberative legislative process, it is not subject to the process's procedural or financial rules. The necessity of compromise and the checks and balances that restrain lone politicians from delivering on contradictory campaign promises is not present in Maine's initiative process. Therefore, citizens should view the promises of initiative supporters during a campaign with at least the same, if not a higher, level of scrutiny as the promises of politicians on the stump.
Jeremy R. Fischer,
Exercise the Power, Play by the Rules: Why Popular Exercise of Legislative Power in Maine Should be Constrained by Legislative Rules,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol61/iss2/6